Coal companies finding opportunities in downturn
Despite the well-publicized struggles of the coal industry, two companies, Ramaco Resources and Consol Energy have been ramping up investments in the coal sector.
Ramaco Resources, which went public in 2017 and has opened five new mines in the past 12 months in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, produces coal for steel mills and sees pockets of promise in the industry. It expects global demand for metallurgical coal to rise in step with economic growth.
Consol Energy, supplies coal to larger power plants and has ramped up its investments while the industry is declining. Reuters reported that Consol has said that it has found a way to turn the rapid decline of coal-fired power into a strength: It has cultivated a clientele that owns big generators that are not expected to shut down anytime soon - making them likely to take over business from rivals that do close.
“We can sell every ounce of coal we can produce,” said David Khani, Consol’s Chief Financial Officer. “This isn’t true for everyone.”
Consol, which mines thermal coal for power plants in Pennsylvania, boosted capital spending last year by 50 percent to $81.4 million, and it aims to bump that to $125 million in 2018, according to its filings.
Ramaco, meanwhile, more than tripled capital expenditures in 2017 to $75 million, making it one of the few coal producers investing in new U.S. mines.
Overall, the U.S. coal industry increased capital spending in 2017 by about 27 percent, according to a Reuters analysis of filings from publicly-traded miners - a rebound from years of steep declines, targeted mainly at sustaining operations rather than expanding. Many individual coal firms have cut back capital spending.
U.S. coal production is expected to dip 6 percent in 2018 to 670 Mt (738 million st), down from 1 Gt (1.17 billion st) a decade ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Ramaco’s spending reflects its opening of five new coal mines said Randall Atkins, Ramaco’s executive chairman.
The company expects to produce more than 1.8 Mt (2 million st) of coal in 2018 from less than 545 kt (600,000 st) in 2017.
The company said the downturn in the U.S. thermal coal industry has little to do with its business. It and other metallurgical coal producers are enjoying robust demand from steel producers around the globe.
“Met coal is a proxy for steel, which is in turn a proxy for a nation’s GDP,” Atkins said. “The world finds itself economically in a good place.”
He said Trump’s steel tariffs could shift some of the demand for metallurgical coal to the domestic market, but that foreign demand for U.S. exports also remains strong.
Consol is betting it can generate hefty profits from a smart play on the downturn. It plans to serve “very large, retrofitted coal plants that compete well against natural gas and which are going to be running at a higher capacity as other units are retired,” said CFO Khani.
Those plants are currently running at only about 70 percent capacity, he said, providing room for growth.
The EIA predicts that coal-fired generators that remain open could operate above 70 percent capacity for decades as other aging plants close. Industry-wide, plants are using less than 60 percent of their capacity now.