“We’ve pretty much reached the bottom on the domestic coal side, and opportunities going forward are going to be more positive with each passing month,” he declared. “You’re going to see an improving supply/demand outlook.”
Alliance is doing its part to balance that equation by pulling back a bit, similar to what Foresight Energy and Hallador Energy/Sunrise Coal have done, on production at some high-sulfur coal mines in the Illinois Basin (ILB). Alliance has additional capacity, for instance, at its Gibson County Coal underground mining complex near Princeton in Gibson County, Indiana.
While Craft sees brighter days for his company and coal in general in the U.S., he made it clear, however, not everyone will prosper. Already in 2015, Patriot Coal and Walter Energy have filed for federal bankruptcy protection in the teeth of the toughest coal market in years, and other companies may soon follow.
Though it continues to perform well above industry norms in virtually every category, Alliance has not gone unscathed by the chaos. “We have been caught up in the downdraft of some of the weaker coal stocks in the past six months,” Craft acknowledged. “Most of our coal industry counterparts are under extreme duress due to high leverage, significant exposure to the metallurgical coal markets, or both. Neither of these attributes applies to us.”
Before the end of 2015, Craft predicted more pain for some coal producers. “You will see quite a bit of restructuring in the next six months or so that will provide a lot of opportunities for us to consider,” he said. That could lead to acquisitions of distressed assets by Alliance, though Craft would not elaborate except to reaffirm his company’s continued focus on the IB and Northern Appalachian coal basins.
By early August, Alliance expected to close on the purchase of the remaining equity interest in White Oak Resources’ White Oak No. 1 longwall mine near McLeansboro in Hamilton County, Illinois, that it did not already control. With the addition of White Oak, as well its new Gibson South continuous miner operation and Tunnel Ridge longwall mine in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Craft said Alliance is “well-positioned for years to come as a low-cost producer strategically located in the Illinois Basin and Northern Appalachian coal basins.”
Craft acknowledged the industry’s many challenges, but decried “doomsday reporting” that attempts to portray the coal industry as dead and buried.
That is far from the truth, he said. Although natural gas eclipsed coal for the first time earlier this year as the top electric generation fuel in the U.S., coal reclaimed the mantle in June, and Craft predicted it continue to do so for the rest of this year.
Indeed, Craft said he believes coal-to-gas switching has about run its course in the country, largely because of “deliverability issues or must-run coal plants,” even with gas prices still hovering below $3/mmBtu. Going forward, he sees coal accounting for at least 30% of all generation in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
“For the next five to 10 years, we’re going to have a very stable domestic utility market,” he said.
During the April-June period, Alliance earned almost $95 million on total record revenue of $604.7 million. A year ago, the company earned $137.7 million on total revenue of $598.6 million. Second-quarter production was about 9.5 million tons, down a bit quarter-over-quarter. But for the first six months of 2015, Alliance produced and sold a record 20 million tons, slightly above production and sales volumes compared to 2014.