Peabody Adapts to the New Reality for U.S. Coal

Massive and permanent changes in the structure of the global coal market have issued an ultimatum to U.S. miners facing anemic domestic demand: adapt or die.

Underscoring the reasons why it remains this Fool's top pick within a beleaguered coal industry, Peabody Energy (NYS: BTU) has moved convincingly to adapt. Peabody secured valuable export capacity this week through a trio of Gulf Coast coal terminals operated by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYS: KMP) . Peabody will be allotted 5 million-7 million tons of annual export capacity from 2014 through at least 2020, and a corresponding agreement with Union Pacific (NYS: UNP) provides haulage from Peabody's massive Twentymile mine in Colorado.

Peabody believes it can competitively direct coals from the Powder River and Illinois coal basins into the Atlantic seaborne trade as well, and Kinder Morgan is preparing to facilitate that trade with a $400 million investment to expand total coal export capacity to 27 million tons per annum at its existing facilities in Texas and Louisiana.

As U.S. coal exports surge in response to growing global demand and a structural decline in domestic demand, strategic access to export capacity has become a key differentiator among competitors, and a boon to port facility operators like Kinder Morgan. CONSOL Energy's (NYS: CNX) wholly owned export facility at the Port of Baltimore -- an asset that investors might have routinely overlooked when total U.S. coal exports were beneath 50 mtpa in 2006 -- has taken on new significance now that exports surpassed 106 mtpa last year (with further growth still to come). Peabody itself retains a 38% ownership stake in the DTA coal terminal in Virginia, with Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources likewise holding major stakes.

While China and India form a crucial core of the emerging long-term global supercycle for seaborne coal demand, the Atlantic coal trade still forms an important part of the picture. Volumes of U.S. coal exported to Europe in 2011 were 92% greater than the year before! Eastern U.S. railroad CSX (NYS: CSX) hauled 41% more coal bound for export in the second quarter of 2012 than in the prior-year quarter. But since Appalachian miners in the eastern U.S. are facing acute cost pressures just as Europe's economic woes weaken the prices paid, Peabody pounced on the opportunity to step in and compete on a grander scale.

It's really rather fascinating! When China and India were red-hot with seemingly inexhaustible growth momentum a couple of years ago, we saw Appalachian metallurgical coals loaded at eastern coal terminals making competitive inroads into the Asian seaborne trade. Now that China has cooled off a touch, and U.S. domestic demand has meaningfully tanked, we find the journey for western and midwestern U.S. coals into the Atlantic seaborne trade making increased economic sense. Over the long haul, I believe that a coal producer with ample export capacity into both major trade routes (though preferably with an emphasis upon the Pacific trade) will compete most effectively through all near-term variations within the longer-term export growth trend.

With its huge global asset portfolio positioned to respond competitively to variable micro-cycles in export demand, I continue to view Peabody Energy as the reigning king of coal. Accordingly, I've designated Peabody Energy as a "Top Pick" within my Motley Fool CAPS portfolio, and I invite Fools to stay tuned for bituminous coverage by bookmarking my article list or following me on Twitter.

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Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of Peabody Energy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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