CONSOL Energy's Hybrid Advantage

Taking a shot in the arm is never too much fun, but it isn't always as bad as it sounds.

This particular shot could have hurt so much more! If CONSOL Energy (NYS: CNX) had not made major strategic strides in the direction of natural gas production over its previously more coal-heavy mix, the forthcoming third-quarter loss that the company warned of Monday might have had investors screaming "ouch!" Judging by the modest 2.5% dip in the shares intraday, I'd call the market's reaction more of faint grunt with a slight grimace.

CONSOL revealed Monday that its multiple temporary coal-mine closures "took their toll on third quarter earnings." Most of these closures occurred as adaptive responses to extraordinarily weak conditions in the market for thermal coal, though recently even the Buchanan mine, with its previously coveted low-vol metallurgical coal, likewise fell prey to the malaise. Add to that stinging sensation the sharp barb of collapsed conveyors that forced unplanned stoppages at the Enlow Fork and Bailey mines, and we appear to have had all the makings for painful quarter for this iconic 148-year-old coal miner.

Fortunately, however, CONSOL Energy benefits from a rich portfolio of natural gas production that functions like a powerful shock absorber against the rugged terrain of coal-market dynamics. Earlier this year, while natural gas prices were notching fresh 10-year lows, the competitive advantage of CONSOL's hybrid product mix may have been harder to spot. But in recent months, natural gas prices and the related equities have enjoyed an attractive rally, helping CONSOL's gas unit to offset much of the persistent weakness from coal. To view this gaseous boost in action, have a look at the following one-year chart:

With a trailing performance that roughly splits the difference between the two relevant industry equity ETFs, CONSOL's shares are behaving precisely as we might expect them to under the circumstances. Thanks principally to the operations of its gas unit -- including attractive joint ventures with Noble Energy (NYS: NBL) and Hess (NYS: HES) in the Marcellus and Utica shales, respectively -- CONSOL has clearly outperformed the benchmark Market Vectors Coal Index ETF (NYS: KOL) , and crushed ailing competitor Alpha Natural Resources (NYS: ANR) . Correlatively, coal is the clear culprit in CONSOL's underperformance of the First Trust ISE-Revere Natural Gas Index Fund ETF (NYS: FCG) , and the airy trajectory of popular producer Comstock Resources (NYS: CRK) .

For long-term investors, whether their primary interest lies with this company's quality coal assets or its exciting shale plays, CONSOL energy offers a unique form of hybrid exposure to two fuel markets that routinely exhibit divergent and highly volatile price swings and market dynamics. Each fuel is bound to experience its moments of relative strength in turn, and the net effect for CONSOL shareholders is a likely smoothing out of the bumps.

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