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Forecast US coal production at risk

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World Coal,

Almost 17% of the forecast US coal production for 2015 is in danger of wasting or closure, totalling 162 million short t, as these mine’s total cash costs plus sustaining capital expenditures exceed current market pricing, according to Wood Mackenzie's latest coal market outlook.

Wood Mackenzie says that most of the coal in danger is produced in Central Appalachia where approximately 72% of the total output is unprofitable. Years of declining productivity, thinning seams, increasing strip ratios, more stringent government regulations, and a high paid workforce have taken their toll and made Central Appalachia the highest cost region within the US. Other US regions also have substantial amounts of coal at risk, ranging from 47% of production in Southern Appalachia to a low of eight percent in both the Western Bituminous and Powder River Basin. In aggregate, this equates to approximately 14% of US thermal coal production and 58% of metallurgical coal production being at risk.

Dale Hazelton, Senior Research Analyst at Wood Mackenzie explains, "Based on current economics there are a significant number of mines unable to cover their operating costs plus sustaining capital. Despite this, mine closures, while not rare, certainly aren't happening frequently. Part of the reason for this is the amount of thermal coal sold on the open market is very small compared to that sold under contract. Contracts can cover multiple years, and prices may have been agreed well before the current market's lows. A producer may also be able to beat the market prices as they have a valuable niche-quality coal, such as stoker coal, or the location of the mine is near an end-user providing a transportation advantage over competitors."

Wood Mackenzie emphasises that for prices to rise, fundamentally one of two things must happen: either the global demand for steel and power must increase or the supply of coal must decrease. Hazelton adds, "The growth prospects for steel demand remain tenuous at best as many countries’ economies remain fragile. The recent strength of the US dollar also encourages non-US producers to grow their production as a strengthening US dollar compared to their local currency effectively lowers their costs of production when denominated in US dollars."

Furthermore, natural gas prices in the US remain at very low levels, resulting in higher levels of coal-to-gas switching in power generation. Wood Mackenzie's outlook notes that additional cost cutting measures are starting to reach limits as producers globally have already cut costs significantly, serving to suppress coal prices further. Therefore, the only practical way for the market to get back into balance is for producers to cut production. "This needs to happen sooner rather than later, either voluntarily or involuntarily through bankruptcy, as the losses these mines are generating cannot be sustained," concludes Hazelton.

Adapted from press release by Joseph Green

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