Why investors worship Old King Coal
Times staff writer Edward Silver filed this report on the burgeoning bull market in the coal sector:
Coal producers are riding high for an industry that a growing throng of Americans wish would just go away.
Year to date, shares of Arch Coal Inc. are up 41%. The biggie of the industry, Peabody Energy Corp., has waxed 24% -- and 94% from its August trough. A broader measure of the sector's stocks, the Market Vectors Coal exchange-traded fund, has advanced 26% since its January launch.
All this bullishness is based on the dark rock’s own surge in value. Benchmark prices for some grades of electricity-generating steam coal are more than $100 for a metric ton, double September’s price. Metallurgical coal, the type used in steel making, has tripled in some contracts.
Oil attracts the anger and the ink, but coal, mined here in the U.S., has joined the club of rudimentary resources blessed by the energy crisis.
What we are paying up for is the dirtiest fossil fuel in the ground, infamous for wielding a heavy hand in the planet’s warming. In Beijing they wear surgical masks to ward off the soot from coal-fired plants, which drifts across the Pacific to further foul the air over Los Angeles. That’s not all. Black lung disease, mercury and sulfur emissions and the ravaging of Appalachian mountaintops are part of the legacy that keeps our lights on.
Coal provides about half the electricity in the United States, though not in California, where natural gas, another fossil fuel, claims a larger share. Nuclear power contributes 20% of the U.S. power total. Hydroelectric has a small role, while solar and wind -- sorry, environmentalists -- thus far account for less than 1% of the total. These wannabes are doing everything they can, including stalking the halls of Congress, to outmaneuver the out-of-favor incumbent.
Coal’s edge, though, is that it’s still the low bidder when it comes to costs, despite the recent run-up in prices. Also, everything needed to radiate coal-fired power all over the map already is in place, not only the generating stations but storage, transit and integration with the grid. On both accounts, solar and wind have plenty of work to do.
Naturally, few Americans want to see a coal plant built in their backyard. In many cases, politicians want them far away too. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, made news when she vetoed two power plants to spare her state 11 million tons of additional carbon dioxide emissions annually. Calls for legislation to bill emitters for their carbon-burning privileges are gaining traction. Even Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, is on board. Likewise, interest is rising in hoped-for technological fixes, including a complex blueprint known as carbon capture and sequestration.
With so much resistance, coal plant construction has ebbed in the U.S. Be prepared for brownouts.
"Utilities know there will be some kind of legislation and a carbon-capture mandate, but there are no requirements yet or price tag associated with carbon," said Ann Kohler, an energy analyst with Caris & Co. "Regulators are looking at natural gas, renewables, nuclear. There are a lot of unknowns. Utilities that have started construction are moving forward, but otherwise, plans are on hold" for new coal-burning plants.
There are no such misgivings or hold-ups in nations that are in a hurry to catch up with the West. China and India have especially voracious appetites for coal’s cheap energy, and the supply deficit may persist for years. This winter, that imbalance suddenly became an emergency, partly the effect of Australian floods and Chinese blizzards that shut down mines. Charging into the breach, U.S. coal exporters are finding famished markets, happy to make hay on prices driven skyward by scarcity. The anemic dollar is a bonus for their bottom lines.
Fossil fuel investors, rejoice. But what an opportunity for renewables! Yet solar, wind and other renewables aren’t nearly ready to dethrone Old King Coal, particularly overseas. In fact, if green alternatives do eventually curtail coal’s dominion in the U.S., it’s not hard to imagine the industry thriving on the tobacco model: ostracized at home, welcomed around the world.
As for the stocks, Kohler rates Massey Energy Co. a buy for its concentration in metallurgical coal, the sweet spot of the market. She expects earnings per share to expand from $1.17 last year to $3.05 this year and $4.13 next year. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Walter Industries Inc. also are well-positioned in metallurgical coal.
Peabody’s shares, meanwhile, now may be too rich to risk money on, Kohler said, based on past valuation ratios.
The whole group, however, won’t for long be enjoying these lofty prices for their output, Kohler believes, and that may inject volatility into their financial results. Mining is recovering in Asia, and prices per ton are likely to settle back to elevated but not aberrant levels. Any shortages in China tied to this week’s destructive earthquake are expected to be short-lived. Furthermore, Kohler foresees a rebound in the dollar.
Although today the market for the grimy mineral is ablaze, change is coming, so keep your eye on these canaries in the mine: Prices could ease along with the supply crunch. Emitting CO2 may get expensive, likewise the technology to capture it. Consumers are unhappy about their electric bills and foul air, and the political class wants to try out a host of new regulations. Cleaner alternatives are clamoring for their chance.
But for now, coal miners are doing business like there’s no tomorrow.
Photo: A coal mine in Trevorton, Pa./Associated Press