The existence of a single market arose from the growth in seaborne coal trade brought on by the combination of firstly, growth in the demand for coking coal in the 1960s and secondly, sharply rising oil prices during the 1970s. Before 1960, international coal trade had been primarily land based, and been between neighbouring countries. Over one-half of the world’s total trade in 1960 was within Europe and the former Soviet Union. Germany was the major exporter to OECD Europe and Poland, whereas the former Soviet Union was the major supplier to Eastern Europe. There was also considerable coal flow from the US to Canada.
The only significant coal trade was from the US to OECD Europe and from the US to Japan. During the 1960s there was an increasing demand for coking coal in OECD countries with insufficient low cost supplies of their own, resulting in considerable growth in seaborne trade. During the 1970s, newly industrialising countries such in South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil became major importers of coking coal.
The rise of oil prices in 1973 initiated a new phase in international coal trade. The rise provided a strong incentive to convert power stations and other installations from oil; and some times from gas to coal. Especially incentivised were those which were initially designed for coal and which had been converted, in the period 1960-1973, to take cheaper heavy fuel oil. The rise also resulted in decisions to construct new coal-fired power plants to use relatively inexpensive imported coal. The trend was reinforced by the oil price increase in 1979, partly because of new coal- fired plants coming on stream, and partly because of the oil product component of the cost of producing and transporting coal. Coal prices peaked in 1982 and then fell over the remainder of the decade. After recovering some ground in 1990, coal prices fell again until 1995.
The record prices achieved in the early 1980s resulted from the recovery of the full cost of high cost incremental additions to production, made possible by the very wide gap between coal and heavy fuel oil prices. The increase in rail freight to the US coast, port charges, demurrage, and higher ocean freight rates were also significant factors in the increase in the CIF (Cost, Insurance, Freight) prices. Since the oil price collapse in 1986, prices for heavy fuel oil, which is a direct competitor for steam coal, have been close to the import price of steam coal.
High prices in the early 1980s had brought on considerable coal production capacity, coinciding with nuclear capacity coming on line in the mid to late 1980s, slowing the rate of growth in coal demand as coal capacity reached a peak. The coal market declined after 1986 as the number of orders for new coal-fired plants slowed, as plant orders dating back to 1973 came on stream and were not replaced by new orders because of the general slowing down in economic activity. In this environment, the coal price collapsed in coal-to-coal competition.
From 1973 to 1986, world hard coal trade increased by about 90% and seaborne trade more then doubled to about 8% of total world production. By 1996, 12.9% of world coal production was traded, and 92% of total coal traded on the international market was transported in ships, either ocean-going or in smaller coastal vessels which transport coal around Northern Europe and the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas.