Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) has been counting on its metallurgical (met) coal division to hedge the uncertain long term prospects of its thermal coal business. Unlike thermal coal, which is used primarily for electricity generation and faces a mounting threat from cheaper and more environmentally friendly natural gas, there is currently no effective substitute for met coal. Met coal is used to produce coke, an important component in the steel making process.
ANR acquired Massey Energy in 2011 to become America’s largest met coal producer, and we estimate that the company’s met coal division accounts for around 45% of its Trefis price estimate. Unlike the thermal coal business which relies on the U.S. market, around 75% of ANR’s met coal production is exported, allowing the firm to diversify a large portion of its revenue stream. Europe is ANR’s largest export market followed by Asia.  ANR’s met coal sales grew from around $1.54 billion to around $3.6 billion between 2009 and 2011, as demand for steel from emerging countries coupled with a recovery in developed countries helped to stimulate demand. However, the division has been facing significant headwinds over the last year, and its near term outlook also looks relatively challenging.
Here are some of the trends that we believe will influence the business going forward.
Lower Demand From China And Strong Seaborne Supply Have Hit Pricing
Near Term Outlook Remains Challenging Despite Expected Growth In Global Steel Production
ANR’s met coal division faces some other challenges as well in the near term. While the firm produces higher quality met coal than what is available in China and some emerging markets, it still trails some other manufacturers such as Canada’s Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK) and Australia’s BHP (NYSE: BHP), which are well positioned in the premium hard coking coal market. ANR’s variety is largely composed of “hi-volatility B” coal, which is more volatile than premium hard coking coal and produces a lower quantity of coke.  ANR and other American producers face a disadvantage on the cost front as well, compared to Australian producers. For instance, BHP Billiton has production costs of around $110 per metric tonne compared to over $135 per tonne for U.S. producers.  Things could get worse as some Australian companies like BHP have recently brought new mines online and are expected to ramp up their exports further, increasing supply in the seaborne coal market.
Some Markets To Watch
According to the world steel association, global steel demand is projected to grow by around 2.9% in 2013, up from around 1.2% growth seen in 2012, and then further expand to around 3.2% in 2014. While Chinese steel consumption is expected to grow by around 3.5% this year, it may not help overall met coal demand much since China has also been boosting its met coal production. India, which was ANR’s largest export market last year, could see met coal demand grow further since steel production in the country is expected to grow by around 5.9% in 2013 and by around 7% in 2014, on the back of monetary easing which would support infrastructure investment. Europe, one of the key markets for Alpha’s metallurgical coal, is expected to remaining challenging this year as well with steel demand declining by around 0.5% this year.Notes: