And the good times should keep rolling in 2014, company officials told analysts during a January 29 conference call to discuss earnings, as Alliance continues to be one of the brightest lights in a U.S. coal industry still facing regulatory and market challenges.
Joseph Craft III, Alliance president and CEO, predicted that “2014 coal sales and production volumes will again be at record levels. We expect to post our 14th consecutive year of record results in 2014.”
Alliance established new benchmarks for coal sales and production volumes, revenues, net income and EBITDA last year. Coal sales and production increased to 38.8 million tons in 2013, a roughly 4-million-ton gain over the previous year. Yearly revenues reached $2.2 billion, or 8.4% higher than 2012.
Craft said his company started the new year with 87% of its estimated 2014 production contractually committed and priced. He expects total revenue this year in a range of $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion, excluding transportation, largely because of higher production.
Production and sales for 2014 are projected to range between 39.25 million tons and 40.75 million tons, he said, of which 34.5 million tons already are contractually priced and committed.
Most of the anticipated production increases can be attributed to the continued ramp-up of the Tunnel Ridge longwall mine in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the new White Oak No. 1 longwall mine in southern Illinois and the new Gibson South continuous miner operation in southern Indiana. White Oak, near McLeansboro in Hamilton County, eventually will produce about 6 million tons annually. Alliance is financing the project in a partnership with privately owned White Oak Resources.
Gibson South, near Alliance’s existing Gibson North mine near Princeton in Gibson County, begins ramping up in the back half of this year when the first of what eventually could be five CM units goes into operation. “We’ll begin with initial production in the third quarter of 2014 and will add units through 2014 and potentially into 2015,” said Brian Cantrell, Alliance senior vice president and chief financial officer. “If the market is there, we’ll grow into a five-unit mine that will produce 5.5 million tons a year at full capacity.”
According to Craft, market dynamics continue to favor the Illinois Basin and Northern Appalachia over Central Appalachia, where thinner coal seams, higher operating costs and transportation constraints have combined to curtail production in the past couple of years.
In the high-sulfur IB, for instance, Cantrell said, Alliance’s production should climb by about 500,000 tons in 2014. The average coal sales price in the region is expected to be comparable to, or slightly lower than, the 2013 average realized price of $52.52/ton.
Mainly because of the closing of the company’s Pontiki underground mine in Martin County, Ky., Alliance’s Central Appalachian volumes are expected to decline by about a third to 1.4 million tons in 2014, Cantrell added.
Alliance also has secured coal sales and price commitments for approximately 27 million tons in 2015, 21.2 million tons in 2016, and 9.4 million tons in 2017.
In response to a question from Raymond James analyst Jim Rollyson, Craft said U.S. electric utilities, Alliance’s prime market, were experiencing heightened demand for power in early 2014 because of the extremely cold winter. “We probably had a dozen inquiries this [January] month, wanting to buy some tonnage in 2014, which I think is a positive sign.” That said, Craft cautioned that the coal-favorable weather was probably not sustainable. “We have to run our business on normal weather patterns,” he said.
In recent years, Alliance has not been a major player in the export market, unlike IB rival Foresight Energy Partners. But that may be changing.
“We do see increased demand but also increased supply in the international marketplace,” and there may be opportunities for increased thermal coal sales overseas, he said. But “a lot depends on the world economy and what China does.” Nevertheless, Craft predicted his company “will be participating more in export markets in the 2016 timeframe than we are today.”