Asia's 2 richest men reap windfall from surging oil, coal

Indian tycoons Gautam Adani (left) and Mukesh Ambani are benefiting from the commodities surge. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani are profiting from a surge in global commodity prices triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, burnishing their fossil-fuel credentials even as Asia's richest men publicly push their pivots toward greener energy.

With coal prices skyrocketing to a record, Mr Adani's conglomerate is expanding a controversial mine in Australia to meet demand.

Mr Ambani's Reliance Industries is snapping up distressed crude-oil cargoes at discounts to feed its refining complex, the biggest in the world.

Reliance even deferred a scheduled maintenance of the facility to help churn out more diesel and petrol, whose margins have shot up to touch a 3-year high.

The two Indian tycoons are stepping in at a time when many developed countries are scrambling for alternative sources of fuels as they try to back away from Russian supplies.

This month, the Group of Seven most-industrialised nations pledged to ban imports of Russian oil.

The disruption has also brought the focus back on the need for more coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel the world has vowed to phase out to cut emissions.

Though Mr Adani, 59, and Mr Ambani, 65, have unveiled a combined US$142 billion (S$197 billion) in green investments over the next few decades in a pivot away from coal and oil - the bedrock of their empires - they are also finding it hard to kick the fossil-fuel habit as the conflict stokes demand.

Global coal demand is expected to rise to a record level in 2022 and stay there through 2024, according to the International Energy Agency.

The war has created a tailwind for fossil fuel-based firms in India, said Mr Chakri Lokapriya, managing director and chief investment officer at TCG Advisory Services in Mumbai.

"The collateral damage is that fossil fuels will continue to play a vital role the next 20 years or more," he said, adding that it was sufficient time to reap benefits from carbon-based investments.

Representatives for Adani Group and Reliance Industries did not respond to an e-mail requesting comments.

Bullishness in coal prices helped flagship firm Adani Enterprises clock a 30 per cent jump in profit for the 3 months ended March - the highest in 6 quarters - while surging prices of petroleum products aided Reliance, which posted one of its biggest quarterly profits ever.

Shares of Reliance and Adani Enterprises soared 19 per cent and 42 per cent respectively between Feb 24, when the invasion began, and the end of April, before a global stock rout wiped out some of those gains.

Mr Adani has added about US$26 billion to his wealth since the war started, taking his net worth to almost US$107 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Mr Ambani's fortune swelled by almost US$8 billion to US$92.4 billion.

It is not just these two Indian billionaires benefiting from the commodities surge.

Others include US oil and gas tycoons Harold Hamm, Richard Kinder and Michael  Smith, and Indonesian businessman Low Tuck Kwong, boss of coal mining company Bayan Resources, who have all seen their wealth increase this year.

Almost 60 per cent of Reliance's revenue comes from oil-refining and petrochemicals, the mainstay business founded by Mr Ambani's late father.

Since inheriting it in 2002, Mr Ambani has been reducing the conglomerate's dependence on oil-refining by diversifying into retail, telecommunications and technology.

India has bought millions of barrels of Urals crude in the spot market since the end of February, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

While flows of Russian oil into India are not sanctioned, the South Asian country has repeatedly said that those shipments are minuscule compared with Europe's purchases and represent a tiny fraction of the country's total consumption.

They also provide some relief at a time when inflationary pressures are increasing.

India's consumer prices rose the most in 8 years in April.

"We have minimised feedstock cost by sourcing arbitrage barrels," Reliance joint chief financial officer V. Srikanth told reporters on May 6, without providing details.

"Overall demand drivers are very promising," he said referring to the strong comeback in demand for fossil fuels.

Refiners in India exported 3.37 million tonnes of diesel in March, the highest since April 2020, when overseas sales were a record 3.4 million tonnes as local demand plummeted during the Covid-19 lockdown, according to data on Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell's website.

Gasoline exports reached a five-year high of 1.6 million tonnes.

Coal has seen an equally strong comeback in recent months.

"People had begun to write coal's obituary two-three years back, but today, it seems, coal's days are not over yet," Mr Pramod Agrawal, chairman of state-miner Coal India told investors this month.

For first-generation entrepreneur Adani, coal is central to his empire.

He has invested more than US$3 billion in coal mines in India, Australia and Indonesia.

His Carmichael mine in Queensland, which has been a target of environmental activists including Ms Greta Thunberg for years, started shipping the fuel only this year.

In a May 4 earnings call, Adani Enterprises said it plans to raise the annual capacity of the Carmichael mine to 15 million tonnes in the year through March 2023, about 50 per cent more than what its board approved for the first phase of the project.

It plans to export as many as 7 capesize cargoes a month, director Vinay Prakash said on the call.

The "geopolitical situation" is expected to keep coal prices strong for now, but how long this lasts is "anyone's guess", Mr Prakash told investors.

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