Move Over, Shania Twain: Meet Canada's Surprising New Superstar

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William Shatner still has swagger, and Neil Young still rocks like he is young. The legend of Gretzky is timeless, and Shania's catchy ditties still echo across the airwaves. But Canada has a new superstar, even if the world has failed to take notice.

With a hat-tip to Canadian game-show host Alex Trebek, let's start with the answer and end with the question. This hot commodity, which major producers agree is in the early stages of a long-term global supercycle, has drawn more consolidation activity in recent years than any other resource in Canada's rich mineral inventory. If you answered "What is metallurgical coal?" then you are today's champion.

In pop culture, we identify stardom by the throngs of adoring fans. Within the financial realm, however, superstars can emerge even before the public takes notice. Using strategic transactions as a gauge of popularity among the most discerning fans of metallurgical coal (the world's major producers), the Peace River Coalfield of British Columbia may be Canada's most adored mineralized geological trend.

A focused frenzy of determined star-seekers
Swiss miner XSTRATA (OTC: XSRAF.PK), the behemoth that is poised to merge with Glencore International to create a $90 billion gargantuan, this week announced its third asset purchase in the Peace River Coalfield in less than 12 months. Acquiring the Sukunka met coal deposit from Talisman Energy (NYS: TLM) for $500 million in cash, XSTRATA continues to expand the strategic footprint of an attractive, contiguous land package within this clearly coveted region. Far larger than the preceding acquisitions of First Coal (for $153 million) and Cline Mining's Lossan deposit (for $40 million), this latest move underscores a resiliently bullish long-term outlook for global met coal demand even as a near-term dip in demand has seen equity valuations crumbling and select miners reducing their output. As with XSTRATA, I believe the current environment is ideal for those looking to initiate exposure to the long-term bullish outlook for this unsung star of the commodity complex.

XSTRATA is not the only force for consolidation in the region. The coal-mining subsidiary of Anglo American shelled out $166 million last October to consolidate its interest in the nearby Trend mine and related exploration targets. Although shareholders of Walter Energy (NYS: WLT) have been among the hardest-hit by the prevailing weakness in the sector, Walter's $3.24 billion acquisition of Western Coal back in 2010 featured an expansive property portfolio in the Peace River Coalfield running roughly parallel to that of XSTRATA. Fools will recall that Teck Resources (NYS: TCK) suffered some serious pain of its own following its $14.1 billion acquisition of Fording Canadian Coal Trust back in 2008, but Teck has since re-emerged. Meanwhile, back in the Peace River Coalfield, Teck is weighing a potential restart of operations at the historical Quintette mine, with a feasibility study expected during the second quarter.

Although the property is across the provincial border into Alberta from B.C.'s Peace River Coalfield, last year's $1 billion acquisition of Grande Cache Coal also belongs in this discussion as further evidence of strategic global interest in Canada's quality coking coal. As I stated at the time: "Even met coal deposits of relatively modest scale have leapt onto the radar screens of determined consolidators in a very big way. This suggests to me that the recent collapse in met coal share valuations is likely to prove a short-lived anomaly within a still-anticipated global supercycle for the strategic resource." Even as near-term softness in the met-coal market persists, I stand behind that long-term perspective.

A future star is born
Looking over a map of the Peace River Coalfield, and the key known deposits on the trend, you can't help fixing your gaze upon one glaring feature. In the wake of all this concerted consolidation activity, the Carbon Creek deposit -- majority-owned by junior developer Cardero Resource (ASE: CDY) -- stands out like an undiscovered star that was born for the big stage. Cardero completed its acquisition of private company Coalhunter in 2011 and signaled the company's strategic focus upon this high-quality coal asset by inserting Coalhunter's founder Michael Hunter as Cardero's CEO. Hunter also founded First Coal, the company that XSTRATA purchased last year for $153 million.

I sat down with Cardero CEO Michael Hunter in Toronto this week at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's mining conference, and I look forward to sharing excerpts from that discussion next week. To catch that article and all my forthcoming coverage of Canada's met-coal bonanza, please bookmark my article list, or follow me on Twitter. In the meantime, I wish to offer my readers a brief glimpse of the relative valuation between XSTRATA's latest purchase and Cardero's 75% stake the Carbon Creek deposit.

XSTRATA's $500 million purchase price for the Talisman's Sukunka deposit equates to $2.12 for each of the asset's 236 million tons in measured and indicated resource. Cardero Resource carries a current market capitalization of just over $120 million, or merely 16% of the project's attributable, post-tax net present value (8% discount rate) of $752 million, as calculated by a preliminary economic assessment last December. Delivered as it was into an equity market that appeared disjointed from market fundamentals, I argued that Cardero's meaningfully positive assessment of Carbon Creek fell entirely upon deaf ears. Applying XSTRATA's latest per-ton purchase price to Cardero's attributable share of measured and indicated resources at Carbon Creek would yield a comparable valuation of $265 million. In subsequent discussions, I will place that clear valuation disconnect into the context of Cardero's array of other assets featuring cash, equity investments, and other compelling projects such as the company's district-scale iron project in Ghana.

Accordingly, even though my bullish CAPScall on Cardero Resource remains deep in the red amid this prolonged bout of weakness for met coal stocks, I remain steadfast in my expectation that the market will ultimately correct for the resulting valuation disconnect in these downtrodden shares.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorChristopher Barkercan be foundblogging activelyand acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the usernameTMFSinchiruna. Hetweets. He owns shares of Cardero Resource, Teck Resources, and Walter Energy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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