The Adani Juggernaut Is Expanding on All Fronts, Australian Coal Need Not Be One of Them

It would a pivotal moment if the Adani Group were to show global leadership and walk away from its long stalled Carmichael mine proposal.

The Adani Group is today one of the most powerful business conglomerates in India, spanning six listed entities across a growing multitude of activities. 

The group is unusual in that it is entirely sensibly, almost entirely focused on one country, India.

Internationally, this conglomerate operates only two businesses of any note – one thermal coal mine in Indonesia and a massively leveraged and likewise under-performing coal export terminal in Australia – the latter of which has suffered due to regulatory glitches.

It is likewise unusual in that at a time when India Inc and the Reserve Bank of India are slowly, but successfully, working to reduce excessive corporate financial leverage and non-performing assets across India, Adani is continuing to add more financial leverage by expanding in all directions concurrently. Within India though, the strategy has paid enormous dividends to date, given this financial leverage is applied primarily to infrastructure where the value is tied to the success of the Indian economy, which has grown at over 6% annually for the last decade. And the Adani group is building powerful allies.

The crown jewel is without doubt Adani Ports & SEZ, built up into the largest port owner operating in the nation, from the humble beginnings leveraging 16,000 acres of land gifted to Adani more than a decade ago. The group also holds majority stakes in Adani Power Ltd (India’s largest private coal-fired power generation firm), Adani Transmissions Ltd (successfully built up mostly in the last five years to now be India’s largest private grid transmission line owner/operator), Adani Green Energy Ltd (successfully built up in just five years to be one of the top three renewable energy developers/owners in India), Adani Gas Ltd and Adani Enterprises Ltd (AEL).

Also read: Exclusive: Pollution Norms – That All Power Plants Except Adani’s Were Complying With – Diluted

In 2019, most investors and banks are understandably in full retreat from the Indian thermal power generation sector, highlighted by financial distress, promotor collapses (GVK, Lanco et al), the debt-funded governance debacle of IL&FS and continuing run of expanding non-performing assets continually eroding the capital base of most public banks. Tata Power has said they will never build another coal fired power plant again, instead pivoting to become one of India’s premier renewable energy leaders. 

But not Adani Power, which over the last couple of years has acquired the 1,320MW subcritical coal power plant at Udupi, then the 600MW subcritical coal power plant at Raigarh, the 1,370MW Raipur supercritical coal fired power plant and the 600MW Korba West subcritical coal power plant. Adani Power is also pushing ahead with the controversially expensive 1,600MW Godda imported coal fired power plant proposal for re-export to Bangladesh, supported by a controversial government award of an Adani dedicated special economic zone (SEZ) and a $1.5 billion subsidised loan from the Indian government’s Power Finance Corp (PFC).

In other areas, the Adani group continues to expand at a rapid rate of knots. More recently, AEL has announced completely new business developments in areas as unrelated as developing data storage services, defence contracting and metro rail operation. In February 2019, having never run a public airport of size, Adani won not one but six airport contracts from the Indian government. Just last week Adani announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), BASF and Borealis for a joint feasibility study to build a $4 billion chemical plant at Mundra in Gujarat.

In contrast to this general track record of domestic success, international expansions for the Adani Group have been costly and difficult to implement.

A surfer carries his board as he walks behind protesters participating in a national Day of Action against the Indian mining company Adani's planned coal mine project in north-east Australia, at Sydney's Bondi Beach in Australia, October 7, 2017. Credit: Reuters/David Gray

A surfer carries his board as he walks behind protesters participating in a national Day of Action against the Indian mining company Adani’s planned coal mine project in north-east Australia, at Sydney’s Bondi Beach in Australia, October 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

In 2009 AEL commissioned one of the world’s lowest energy content (3,000kcal) thermal coal export mines in Indonesia. While 12-13 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) was targeted back in 2009, production has generally run around 4Mtpa. 

The second offshore foray was to acquire a huge coal deposit long stranded in the remote Galilee Basin in Queensland in 2010, but almost decade and $1 billion later, this purchase remains remote and undeveloped, having generated enormous controversy and ongoing community backlash across Australia. Half of a nearby tenement of similar size was reportedly sold for just $0.4 million last year, while another tenement development plan held by Chinese interests was shelved in March 2019. This Australian HALE thermal coal export proposal is looking entirely unbankable and unviable absent massive government subsidies from both Australia and India.

Also read: Explained: Adani Gets Green Light to Start Digging Coal Mine in Queensland

In 2011, the Adani Group acquired the Abbot Point Coal Terminal (APCT) for US$2bn (financed almost entirely by debt), but nine years later APCT has never operated at more than 55-60% of capacity and barely breaks even after debt funding. A target to build 1,500MW of solar across Australia in 2017 has seen just 65MW built 3 years later, and management exits suggest this stalling of activity is likely to be ongoing.

International recognition

The Adani group has been exceptionally busy tapping international debt markets in 2019, with multiple US$ denominated bond raisings across Adani Ports, Adani Green Energy and Adani Transmission successfully raising US$2-3 billion of new debt.

And earlier this month the Adani Group announced a major milestone, selling 37.4% stake in its recently listed Adani Gas Ltd to Total for Rs 6,155 crore (US$850m). The Indian government has long targeted a doubling of gas’ share of the Indian energy mix to 15%, but most (including IEEFA) have been sceptical of this target in light of the heavily regulated and well below international market parity pricing of gas in India.

However, this announcement is a major international capital markets endorsement of Adani’s recent aggressive expansion into Liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal construction and gas distribution network development across a growing number of cities across India.

IEEFA has long endorsed the global importance of India’s audacious 450 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 aspiration, not just in terms of delivering an ever lower cost, more sustainable energy new alternative for India, but also in terms of delivering on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. India is well ahead of its 2015 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and taking an international leadership role on decarbonisation, renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles. 

Also read: Total SA to Buy 37.4% Stake in Adani Gas for Nearly Rs 5,700 Crore

With the growing international focus on India’s increasingly important role on the centrestage globally, the concurrent rise of the Adani group is of real note. It would a pivotal moment if the Adani Group were to show global leadership and walk away from its long stalled Carmichael mine proposal.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has long argued the world must rapidly move away from its over-reliance on coal if it is to deliver on the Paris Agreement, starting with developed countries like Australia. Opening up for development the world’s largest new thermal coal basin – a truly enormous carbon bomb of up to 300Mtpa of low-quality thermal coal for export for many decades – has proven unbankable and unviable for a clear reason, the world can’t afford it. Far better Adani acquire an existing export thermal coal mine to secure immediate import supply to India and immediate cashflows for as long as it is needed.

 There are an increasing number of thermal existing large scale, higher quality coal export mines available at increasingly bargain prices – BHP’s Mt Arthur mine being just the latest for sale from an increasingly keen seller. This could prove a real win-win-win for the Adani Group, BHP and the planet.

Tim Buckley is Director, Energy Finance Studies South Asia, IEEFA.