No Coal Exporting Problems Here

While U.S. companies like Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal have dealt with weak foreign demand for U.S. coal, Westshore Terminals is set to boost throughput at its coal port by nearly 15% this year. What's behind the differing views on the export issue?

More coal
Westshore Terminals pushed 8.2 million tonnes of coal through its port in the third quarter, up from 7.1 million tonnes last year. It is now projecting throughput of 30 million tonnes for 2013, up from 26.1 million tonnes in 2012. Westshore is clearly seeing more coal sent overseas.

Major Westshore customers include Teck Resources and Cloud Peak Energy . Both continue to see solid export demand. Teck, for example, had record coal volumes in the third quarter. And while Cloud Peak's exports were down about 200,000 tons in the quarter, it expects full year exports to be up over 10% compared to 2012.

Priced out?
Cloud Peak mines thermal coal exclusively in the ultra-cheap Powder River Basin region. Cheap thermal coal is always popular, particularly in the key market of South Korea, where several nuclear reactors have been shut by safety concerns. So that's part of the reason for Cloud Peak's export strength. Canada-based Teck Resources, meanwhile, focuses on steel making coal, where steel demand remains solid overall and Asian demand could easily be described as robust.

But, Teck pointed to the problem that Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources are facing: "...the current price for steelmaking coal remains below what we believe is required to sustain adequate production in the industry in the long term." So Teck is selling more coal, but at lower prices—its earnings in the quarter fell almost 40% year over year.

That's why both Alpha and Arch were talking about cheap met prices limiting their competitiveness at the end of the second quarter. Alpha, for example, shut down one million tons of annual met production in the first half that was "uneconomic." Arch noted at the half year mark that "rationalization to date has not been sufficient to balance the [met] market." It highlighted mine closures that reduced its met capacity by two million tons.

Cautiously optimistic
Demand, however, isn't the issue—price is. That's why the pair continues to struggle. But solid demand and capacity reductions, like Arch and Alpha have made, should eventually change that. And that rebound could be starting to take shape now.

In its third quarter call, Alpha Natural noted that Europe metallurgical coal demand has continued to pick up, U.S. demand is stable, and Asian demand has been strong, particularly in China. Alpha is now "cautiously optimistic." Part of that comes from the continued demand for met coal, however other factors are also at play.

"[I]ncreasing seaborne freight rates... have tended to keep Australian met coal out of the Atlantic basin." That makes U.S. met coal more competitive in Europe and South America -- important markets. And Chinese demand has been so robust that Australian met may not be enough to satisfy that growing nation's long-term needs. So major global met players like Arch and Alpha are struggling today with low prices, but the market may be starting to correct.

Good for all
That would be good news for Westshore Terminals, which is already benefiting from solid export demand and has plans to increase its port capacity over the next few years. However, it would be great news for Arch and Alpha, where met coal pricing is a key factor in profitability. In fact, met pricing is probably even more important than volume for this pair, so keep a close eye on this factor.

Cloud Peak, meanwhile, is in something of a tough spot. It doesn't have much room to increase exports until new ports are built—regardless of demand. That makes port construction the key factor to watch on the export front for this thermal coal miner.  

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Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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