NTPC looks to bypass state trading firms on coal import

NTPC looks to bypass state trading firms on coal import

New Delhi: India’s largest power generation utility, NTPC Ltd, may directly import the coal it needs, instead of asking state-owned trading firms such as MMTC Ltd and State Trading Corp. of India Ltd (STC) to import the fuel for it.

The move, which could affect revenue from coal imports at these trading firms, is a fallout of a controversy surrounding MMTC’s execution of an order to import a record 12.5 million tonnes (mt) of coal valued at Rs6,000 crore for NTPC. That order is now stuck.

One of the bidders for the tender, Knowledge Infrastructure Systems Pvt. Ltd (KISPL), has alleged foul play in the way this order was executed, and has demanded an investigation into the procurement process and an intervention by the Prime Minister’s Office.

NTPC could reduce its coal import bill through direct imports that do not involve paying a commission to the trader. This could mean proportionately lower power generation costs and, consequently, lower tariffs.

“We plan to operationalize this sourcing mechanism by the end of this year and we are in talks with overseas coal mining firms in Indonesia and Australia for the same," said a top NTPC executive who did not want to be identified. “We are aware about the controversy surrounding our 12.5mt coal contract with MMTC over which questions have been raised from some quarters."

NTPC has a coal import policy in place and can only import coal through state trading firms such as MMTC and STC. This policy will need to be changed should NTPC want to import coal directly.

In an email communication, KISPL’s spokesperson voiced two concerns about the controversial 12.5mt contract. The first is NTPC’s use of an intermediary because this will lead to a mark-up in the imported cost of coal. “Since fuel cost is a pass-through, this additional cost is passed on to citizens in the form of increased power tariff and, hence, the process should be discouraged," wrote the spokesperson.

The second has to do with the conditions of the import tender which the spokesperson claims are “against Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) guidelines and standard public sector tenders." “The tender neither provides level playing ground for all the bidders nor does it seem to promote competition, which is the main basis behind public tenders."

CVC is a government entity that serves as a sort of conscience keeper for state-owned companies.

Other bidders for the 12.5mt contract are Adani Enterprises Ltd and two consortia, Agarwal Coal Corp. Pvt. Ltd and Kowa Co. Ltd of Japan; and Dubai-based Coal and Oil Group (C&O), Coastal Energy Pvt. Ltd and Seapol Pvt. Ltd.

“The controversy has been raised as there is a conflict between various competitors. There is a divergent view on the qualification criteria between CVC and NTPC. We are stuck there. We have communicated to NTPC that either you get these qualification criteria cleared by the CVC or we get an approval from our board," said a senior MMTC executive who did not want to be identified.

The same MMTC official maintained that NTPC’s decision to bypass a trading firm will only have a minimal impact on its turnover. “We are not regularly importing coal for NTPC. The last time we imported coal for them was in 2005-06—2.1 mt. I will not say that it is a loss of business as it is an additional business we are looking for. It is NTPC’s prerogative whether they want to do it through a trading company such as ours or themselves," he said.

MMTC posted a net profit of Rs1,654.42 core on a turnover of Rs36,904.62 crore in 2008-09. Of this, revenue of Rs2,724 crore came from the coal business. The firm imported 3.7mt of coal in the last fiscal for state utilities. Mint could not immediately ascertain the share of NTPC in the state trading firm’s coal import business in previous years.

The size of the market for imported coal that goes into power generation in India is around 20mt a year, and is expected to double by 2012 as more thermal power projects come up.

Coal is critical for NTPC as at least 80% of its installed capacity of 30,644MW is coal-based. However, a majority of its coal-based projects don’t have sufficient stock of coal. NTPC used 125 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of domestic coal in 2008-09 and 6.41 mtpa of imported coal. Indian coal has a high-ash content, one reason why some domestic coal-based power plants mix it with higher quality coal that is imported.

An Adani Group spokesperson could not be reached for comment and questions mailed to his email address bounced back. Questions emailed to the firm remained unanswered.

A consultant said that intermediaries usually add to the cost unless they can aggregate demand and get better bargains in the international market. “That, however, may not be the case with some of the larger utilities in India," said Dipesh Dipu, principal consultant, mining, at audit and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers,

India has known coal reserves of 255 billion tonnes, the fourth largest in the world. Coal accounts for at least 50% of India’s commercial energy consumption and around 78% of domestic coal production is dedicated to power generation.