* China imported 27.81 mln T of coal in Jan
* Utilities’ daily coal consumption at record amid snowstorms
* Imports likely to stay high until March -analyst (Adds comment, detail)
BEIJING, Feb 8 (Reuters) - China’s coal imports hit their highest in four years in January, customs data showed on Thursday, driven up as snowstorms across the country boosted demand from utilities and snarled domestic transport networks.
The world’s No.2 economy brought in 27.81 million tonnes of coal last month, up 11.5 percent from 24.91 million the year before, the General Administration of Customs said. That compared with 22.74 million tonnes in December.
The cold snap pushed daily coal consumption at utilities to a record seasonal-high of 850,0000 tonnes as of Feb. 2, while inventories at power plants fell to a critical level of less than 15 days of consumption, data from consultants Wind showed.
In late January, four of China’s top utilities warned of heating and electricity shortages due to tight supplies of coal.
Thermal coal prices on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange touched a record-high of 679.8 yuan ($107.96) a tonne on Jan.29.
“Foreign coal prices are more competitive as coal prices in China rallied on capacity reduction,” said Cheng Gong, analyst at China National Coal Association.
Beijing has vowed to phase out all small coal mines with capacity below 90,000 tonnes across the country, but some regions have raised the threshold to below 150,000 tonnes to further streamline the industry.
Shanxi, the country’s coal mining hub, has ordered big coal mines to shorten or cancel staff holidays during Lunar New Year.
Meanwhile, some coal imports have been stranded due to insufficient rail freight capacity in the wake of the snowy conditions.
“Coal imports will remain at a high level in February and March due to robust demand at utilities for heating. Arrivals are likely to fall after March when the weather gets warm,” said Cheng.
The heating season typically ends in mid-March in northern China.
Seaborne coal shipments from Indonesia rose to 11.06 million tonnes last month, the highest since November, 2016, while coal arrivals from Australia climbed to their highest in months, according to data compiled by Thomson Reuters Supply Chain and Commodity Forecasts.
Shipments in February have already touched 11.7 million tonnes, the Supply Chain data showed. ($1 = 6.2970 Chinese yuan renminbi) (Reporting by Muyu Xu and Josephine MasonEditing by Christian Schmollinger and Joseph Radford)