It’s important for investors to understand that there are two types of coal mined. The first is thermal coal which is used by power plants to heat homes. The second is metallurgical coal which is used by steel plants to produce steel. Each one has been affected by different market dynamics that delivered a two-prong hit to the entire coal industry.
Thermal coal has been hit by cheap natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded supplies of natural gas in the U.S., and the price of natural gas has come down dramatically from almost $15 to under $2 last year. The cheaper natural gas lead to many power plants switching from coal to natural gas. As natural gas prices have rebounded to over $4, coal switching looks likely now. That will not only support coal producers, but the railroads that transport the coal.
In the metallurgical coal market, producers have had to deal with over-supply and a global slowdown. Steel demand has been particularly weak in Europe, and China’s economy is not growing as fast as it used to. Couple that with new mines coming online, and you have a classic supply/demand imbalance. Look for the market to balance itself out later in the year as the global economy recovers and improves.
Two coal stocks
CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE:CNX) is a diversified energy company that produces both coal and natural gas. The company’s coal operations mine both thermal coal for power generation and metallurgical coal for use in the production of steel. CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE:CNX) explores and produces natural gas in the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale.
CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE:CNX) is one of the companies that has reduced costs as coal prices have come down. According to Chairman & CEO J. Brett Harvey:
Our tier one low-vol assets at Buchanan Mine are perhaps the lowest cost metallurgical coal assets in the country. While I believe that the investment community has has been more focused on lower prices from a softer world-wide met coal market, our ability to successfully manage costs has helped mitigate the impact of lower prices on profitability.
Arch Coal Inc (NYSE:ACI) is a top five global coal producer, selling 141 million tons in 2012. The company has mines in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland, representing 15% of America’s coal supply. Domestic reserves total approximately 5.5 billion tons, of which 70% is low in sulfur.
Despite the global coal market headwinds that have prevailed over the last 18 months, we are delivering strong cost control, exercising capital restraint and minimizing cash outflows in the trough of the market cycle, while maintaining our commitment to safety and environmental excellence. As the market cycle turns, we are confident that our low-cost operations will generate strong cash flows and value for our shareholders.
Outlook for both coal stocks
We must now look forward and see what the future holds for these two coal stocks. Both companies have reduced costs and have positioned themselves for an improving market. Chinese economic data has been improving, and that means more steel demand for construction projects and more coal needed to produce that steel. The U.S. economy has been recovering as well, and that bodes well for steel demand.
Natural gas prices are forecast to continue rising and that favors more natural gas to coal switching. Natural gas prices are double of where they were a year ago. As the market cycles turn, look for coal demand to pick up, supply to decrease, coal prices to rise, and profits to increase at these two coal producers.