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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, March 16 (Reuters) - What's more important? The fact the Coal India will once again miss its annual output target, or that it will produce over 31 million tonnes more than it did the previous year?
Recent media reports have highlighted that Coal India Ltd (CIL), the state-owned behemoth that's the world's largest miner of the fuel, will likely miss its target of producing 598 million tonnes in the fiscal year ending March 31.
"CIL may miss by 20 million tonnes and it should be between 570-578 million tonnes," Coal Secretary Susheel Kumar said of the target, in an article in the Economic Times on March 12.
Assuming CIL reaches the lower end of the range, the 570 million tonnes produced in 2016-17 would still be 31.25 million, or 5.8 percent, more than what it managed in 2015-16.
More impressive is that CIL's output has gone from 452.2 million tonnes in the 2012-13 fiscal year to around 570 million in the year about to end, meaning that the company is mining some 120 million tonnes more annually than it was a mere five years ago.
CIL regularly misses its output targets, most likely because they are set on the optimistic side. But this shouldn't overshadow the company's achievement in boosting its production despite the infrastructure and bureaucratic constraints it faces.
It should also be pointed out that the company is still a very long way off its target of 1 billion tonnes of annual output by 2020.
If it continues to add around 30 million tonnes to its production each year, it would only reach around 700 million tonnes by the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year.
But the question is whether India actually needs CIL to produce 1 billion tonnes a year, given the country is scaling back its plans to build new coal-fired power plants.
Four proposed so-called ultra-mega power plants, with a planned total generating capacity of 16 gigawatts (GW), were cancelled last June by the Energy Ministry.
India scaled back its total coal-fired plans by 40 GW last year, according to a study by non-government and anti-coal group CoalSwarm.
CIL is actually struggling to sell all the coal it currently produces as utilities are not buying as much as expected due to lower power demand growth and poor profitability.
The miner sold 491 million tonnes of coal, short of its target of 540.3 million in the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, BloombergQuint reported on March 14.
Overall, it appears that CIL is producing more coal than India currently needs - a factor likely to have bearish consequences for imports.
India's imports of the fuel have been trending lower since the recent peak in June last year, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Thomson Reuters Supply Chain and Commodity Forecasts.
In June last year, India's coal imports were 19.65 million tonnes, but these dropped to 12.79 million in January this year, before staging a slight recovery to 13.16 million last month, the data show.
India ceded its status as the world's top coal importer back to China in 2016, with the annual total reaching 194.3 million tonnes, down from 206.6 million in 2015, according to Thomson Reuters data.
If the pace of the first two months of 2017 is maintained for the rest of the year, India's coal imports will slide again toward a figure around 155 million tonnes.
Of India's major coal suppliers, Australia is performing the best so far in 2017, with imports in the first two months totalling 7.31 million tonnes. If maintained, that pace would see 2017 imports of around 43.9 million tonnes.
This would be slightly lower than the 44.82 million tonnes India imported from Australia in 2016, but maintaining volumes in a falling market is still relatively good news for Australian coal exporters.
Indonesia, India's biggest supplier, is suffering more from India's slower imports. The total for the first two months reached 11.97 million tonnes, making for an annual pace of around 71.8 million - well down on 84 million tonnes in 2016 and 104.5 million in 2015.
South Africa, the third-biggest supplier to India, is also seeing lower volumes, with just 2.95 million tonnes imported in the first two months, making for an annual rate of around 17.7 million. That would be about half the 35.5 million tonnes India imported in 2016.
It's no surprise that India is importing less coal given the higher domestic output, slow demand growth and higher seaborne prices, with the regional thermal benchmark Newcastle weekly price more than doubling between January last year and its peak of $109.64 a tonne in November.
It has since eased back to $78.60 a tonne in the week to March 10, but it's likely that the price hasn't fallen enough to spark a rebound in India's imports.
Editing by Kenneth Maxwell