Brian Cantrell, senior vice president and CFO of the Tulsa, Okla.-based company, said Alliance was heartened in part by a 5.6% increase in the nation’s coal burn in the early months of 2014 compared to last year. A higher burn typically translates to lower electric utility stockpiles and a resurgence of coal buying, and that appeared to be the case this winter.

At the end of 2013, he said, U.S. coal inventories hovered around 148 million tons, their lowest since September 2011. “We have seen some estimates, and the trend continues to be favorable. For January, there was a drawdown of about 12 million tons, so utility inventories were down to about 136 million tons by the end of January. Draws continued to pick up in February and they were about 6 million tons down” to about 130 million tons, he said. “That’s a significant decline. That’s the lowest they’ve been since February 2006.”

With cold weather lingering well into March for large areas of the country, inventories at least were expected to “remain largely flat” for the last month of winter, he said.

Alliance, probably to no one’s surprise, was among the coal producers that experienced a pickup in contracting by utilities. “RFP activity has picked up significantly,” Cantrell said, referring to formal requests for proposals issued by utilities. Alliance mostly produces thermal coal, although it does own some metallurgical coal reserves in Central Appalachia. The scrubbed U.S. electric market accounts for a big chunk of Alliance’s sales.

This year, Alliance is targeting coal production and sales volumes to increase to a range of 39.25 million tons to 40.75 million tons. At the start of 2014, the company had an open position of roughly 6 million tons. But by March, “we’ve cut that by more than half,” Cantrell said.