“Last year, the export market was the big move” for major IB producers such as Forersight Energy Partners, said Bill Hoback, director of the Illinois Office of Coal Development. “This year, it’s being able to do it domestically.”
Coal’s share of the nation’s generation market has grown to about 42% in 2013, up from 38% last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Rising natural gas prices—they hit historic lows early last year—are credited for much of coal’s domestic rebound.
Shipping coal overseas was all the rage in Illinois last year. Led by Foresight, a company owned by billionaire Christopher Cline, the state’s coal companies sent more than 13 million tons, more than 25% of the state’s total output of 48 million tons, to foreign customers in 2012.
This year, Foresight has pulled back somewhat from the export market, several coal industry analysts said. A Foresight executive suggested recently “there was better demand domestically in 2013” in the U.S., and the company has been able to capitalize on more favorable pricing, one analyst said.
Peabody Energy was Illinois’ primary exporter “before Foresight showed up” several years ago, Hoback recalled.
Foresight quickly has evolved into the largest coal producer in Illinois with estimates the company’s four underground mining complexes eventually could turn out more than 30 million tons annually. Almost single-handedly, Foresight has reversed a two-decade decline in Illinois’ coal fortunes, placing the state on a trajectory to return by mid-decade to the 60 million tons a year it was producing in 1990.
But after an aggressive ramp-up during the past couple of years, the company’s sizzling rate of production growth appears to be cooling off a bit in 2013.
According to Alex Turnbull, a Goldman Sachs analyst based in Singapore, Foresight sold 35-40% of its coal into the export market in 2012. But this year, he said, the company has been less able to compete for foreign sales despite its reputation as perhaps the IB’s lowest-cost producer.
Foresight spokeswoman Jennifer Kroen declined to comment about the company’s production and sales.
Turnbull said Foresight appears to be reducing its planned capital expenditures by about half, indicating a possible slowdown in mine capacity and production expansion in Illinois.
Based on federal Mine Safety and Health Administration figures, the Foresight underground mines — Mach Mining No. 1, also known as Pond Creek; M-Class Mining’s MC No. 1 mine; Hillsboro Mining’s Deer Run mine; and the Shay No. 1 mine — are on track to collectively produce about 20 million tons of coal in 2013.
That would represent about a 20% increase from the roughly 16 million tons they produced in 2012, but still far short of the 30 million tons or so state mining officials expect Foresight to eventually produce in Illinois. Mach Mining, M-Class and Hillsboro Mining are longwall operations while Shay is a continuous miner operation.
Hoback said it is too soon to predict how much coal Illinois will produce this year, although he believes it will exceed last year’s total. Export sales, though, probably will be down.
If so, that would be in keeping with EIA’s forecast that U.S. coal exports are likely to decline to 112 million tons this year from 126 million tons in 2012.