The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company’s late April earnings call was like a broken record, but one that was music to the ears of participating coal analysts. Several congratulated Alliance President and CEO Joe Craft and his staff for turning in arguably the best earnings performance in the U.S. coal industry so far this year.
While some coal producers are cutting back, mainly in Central Appalachia and at both thermal and metallurgical operations in response to weak pricing and onerous government regulations, Alliance is pushing ahead by opening new mines, increasing its 2014 production forecast and planning new growth opportunities.
Craft said several factors contributed to his company’s establishing new quarterly benchmarks for production and net income in the first three months of this year. Alliance produced more than 10 million tons of coal and earned $115.9 million, up nearly 13% from a year ago.
The company’s Tunnel Ridge longwall mine in Pennsylvania and West Virginia “completed a major longwall move in late January and its revised mine plan performed above expectations for the quarter,” Craft said, helping drive output in the Appalachian region higher by almost 25%.
Meanwhile, initial production from Alliance’s new Gibson South continuous miner operation in Gibson County, Indiana, got under way in April, well ahead of schedule. “The increased production now expected this year from both Tunnel Ridge and Gibson South,” combined with Alliance booking about 7.8 million tons of new sales commitments in the first quarter, “put us on track to achieve our 14th consecutive year of record results,” he said.
During the quarter, Alliance sold 2.013 million tons of Appalachian coal, compared with 1.783 million tons, at an average sales price of $66.24/ton, a year ago. That was $0.20/ton higher than the average selling price of $66.04/ton in the first quarter of 2013. In the IB, the company sold 7.482 million tons in the latest quarter, down slightly from 7.706 million tons a year ago. The first quarter’s average selling price, however, was $52.42/ton, higher than last year’s $51.95/ton.
Thanks to the new sales commitments and enhanced contributions from Tunnel Ridge and Gibson South, Alliance now expects to produce in the range of 40.25 million to 41 million tons in 2014, up from the previous estimate of 39.25 million to 40.75 million tons, according to Brian Cantrell, the company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Craft said coal markets are improving with stockpiles being burned down at many electric utilities in the U.S. during the extremely cold winter. “We believe market dynamics point to the likelihood of increased pricing in the second half of 2014,” he added.
In response to a question from James Rollyson of Raymond James, Craft said the winter weather mainly had an adverse impact on coal transportation from the Powder River Basin, where Alliance has no operations. “We did see increased demand and evaluated opportunities for the second half of the year,” Craft noted. “Everybody is watching the natural gas curve, which continues to influence some utilities’ willingness to commit” to new coal purchases.
Assuming normal weather this summer, Craft said Alliance anticipates the demand for IB coal will increase by about 9.5 million tons, and Northern Appalachia by about 3.5 million tons. “We believe that currently production is falling short of demand. We would expect prices to be higher in the back half of the year over the first half of the year due to the demand/supply balance.”
Looking ahead, Craft said Alliance is evaluating several growth opportunities. They include the proposed Penn Ridge continuous miner operation in southwestern Pennsylvania. More than 56 million tons of high-sulfur reserves are attached to the project. Craft said Alliance also is weighing “a couple of projects” in the IB, although he did not elaborate.
Given plans by U.S. electric utilities to retire more coal-fired generation in the next couple of years, most of Alliance’s new mines “will have to be dependent on the export market and what our competitors do,” he said, “whether they continue to stay in the market or close shop.”