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Historically Challenged


The opening spread for News this month has three items that Coal Age readers probably never thought they would ever see. First, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been sentenced to prison. As this edition was going to press, Peabody Energy, one of the world’s largest coal producers, filed for bankruptcy. Also, total coal production in the U.S. continues to plummet.

Many thought Blankenship would never serve time. If he loses on appeal, this case could have some huge implications for executives that manage industrial companies. He has asked the court to remain free during the appeals process. While he might serve his time before the appeals process is completed, which would be unfair if he overturned the court’s ruling, the judge in this case has shown little sympathy for Blankenship. Similarly, labor groups and widows have voiced with great emotion that they believe the sentence is too lenient. As of press time, the court had not answered Blankenship’s requests.

Peabody President and CEO Glenn Kellow used the term “historically challenged” to describe the company’s current position. The amount of wealth destruction that has taken place is truly incredible. In 2011, Peabody Energy’s market capitalization was valued at $20 billion; today, the value of the company’s market capitalization is $38 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. Peabody Energy has posted losses for nine consecutive quarters, and in 2015, it posted a $2 billion loss for the year.

Readers might recall that the company paid more than $5 billion in 2011 for Macarthur Coal in Australia, but this is more about the U.S. mining operations. Peabody Energy’s U.S. mines are profitable, but they are unable to service the debt the company has accumulated. And, the company secured $800 million in “emergency financing” to keep operations running.

Meanwhile, overall U.S. coal production for the first quarter of this year has dropped more than 31% year-on-year to less than 170 million tons. If this trend continues, annual coal production in the U.S. will drop to 680 million tons — a figure this industry has not seen since the late 1970s or early 1980s.

The market shift is now beginning to impact the large mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB). Both Peabody Energy and Arch Coal announced large layoffs in the PRB for the first time this month. About 31,000 miners have lost their jobs since 2009, according to statistics from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Local media is reporting that miners are leaving southern West Virginia and Virginia in droves seeking work elsewhere.

What will the coal industry of the future look like? It will certainly be much smaller. As these companies work their way through these reorganizations, the assets (or the mines) could end up in the hands of the creditors, which would likely sell them to private owners to recoup their money. Natural gas prices are low and they look to remain low for the foreseeable future. Coal prices have dropped to levels not seen since the early 1990s, but costs have escalated substantially in that 25 years. This will be a seminal year for the U.S. coal industry.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief
[email protected]