By Sudarshan Varadhan
CHENNAI (Reuters) - Indian utilities' coal imports fell more than 73% in September to their lowest in more than seven years due to high prices, government data showed, despite a call by the federal government to boost shipments to arrest a crippling coal shortage.
Imports by Indian utilities fell to 1.08 million tonnes in September, compared with 4.03 million tonnes in the same period in 2020 and 5.23 million tonnes in September 2019. Import data for periods preceding April 2014 were unavailable.
India had urged utilities to import coal in late August as coal-fired electricity generation surged after coronavirus-related curbs were eased, with several power plants being pushed to the verge of running out of fuel.
However, data from the Central Electricity Authority showed state government-run coastal power plants, which are dependent on imported coal, had cut supplies as global prices surged, increasing pressure on state-run Coal India to produce more.
Nearly three-fifths of India's coal-fired capacities currently have coal inventories that would last three days or less, federal power ministry data shows.
Imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by utilities during the September quarter also slumped 36%, the data showed, hitting their lowest levels in three years. The drop represented the steepest monthly decline in at least three and a half years.
Coal imports by power plants fell 55% during the quarter, making it the biggest fall in at least six and a half years.
Overall gas consumption by utilities fell by about a fifth during the quarter, with power plants increasing reliance on long-term contracts with global and domestic firms, and cut down on spot buying as prices surged, the data showed.
India mainly imports natural gas from Qatar, while Indonesia, Australia and South Africa are key suppliers of coal to the world's second-largest importer of the fuel.
Imports of coal could, however, rise in the coming months as state-run NTPC Ltd has issued a tender to import 2 million tonnes of coal, nearly double the quantity it has imported so far this year. It was not immediately clear when the coal would be delivered.
(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)