August 12, 2007
Jitters About Regulatory Outlook Rile Confidence in Coal Mining Stocks
by Francesca Rheannon
Growing political momentum for enacting state and national laws to reduce CO2 emissions is raising
worries among investors of the long term viability of the coal industry.
It's not just its color that's looking black for coal these days, according to a recent report by
downgraded the financial outlook for coal stocks in 2008. Issued on July 18, the report voiced
pessimism about future earnings of coal mining company shares due in part to worries over the
uncertain regulatory climate facing coal due to global warming.
coal inventories and a "hostile" political environment going into the 2008 election, Citigroup
shifted from the positive view it has held on coal so far this year, forecasting "grim" second
quarter earnings. Overall, coal production is down by 2.3% since the beginning of the year with
inventories brimming and pricing flat. As a result, the report lowered its financial forecast for
the top two industry leaders, Peabody Energy (ticker: BTU) and Arch (ticker: ACI), with the
latter coming in for an estimated 18% decline in second quarter earnings per share. Other companies
fared poorly in the report, as well.
Several factors caused concern, such as lower coal
demand due to cooler summer temperatures this year, weather disruptions to rail shipments, and
rising input costs. But the lion's share of worries centered on the prospect of increased
regulation and carbon "constraints" that Citigroup said were "certain to pinch" future earnings.
Coal-fired power plants are major emitters of climate-warming greenhouse gases, especially since
most employ pulverized coal, the most polluting production method.
The coal industry has
been facing a swelling tide of opposition over the past year, beginning with a successful campaign
against Texas utility TXU's (ticker: TXU) plans to build eleven new
(mostly pulverized) coal power plants in its home state (see links below). A coalition of
environmental and shareholder activists coordinated by the organization Ceres was able to force the utility to drastically pare its plans
down to three new plants.
"We think investors should be asking hard questions about
building pulverized coal plants," Ceres spokesman Peyton Fleming told SocialFunds. "We are seeing
much more hesitancy by builders. And future costs [of regulation] will be borne by rate payers and
investors," he added.
The Citigroup report bears that out: "It is naive to believe that
CO2 legislation will fail to pinch margins. We believe this necessary industry will be allowed to
operate, but windfall margin expansion is unlikely, as fee will follow regulation will follow
Opposition to coal is mounting across the nation. In June, Florida Power and
Light was denied permits to build a new coal-powered plant, following on the heels of similar
permits denied in Delaware, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon and Illinois.
August 1, the U.S. House of Representative passed an energy bill favoring renewable fuels over
coal, gas and oil. Several new bills are pending, such as Rep. Jim Stark's "Save Our Climate Act."
It would tax carbon-based fuels beginning at $10 per ton of carbon and rise each year until total
CO2 emissions fall to 80% below 1990 levels.
Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's
Coal Campaign, sees this as just the beginning. The campaign is going after the one hundred and
forty new coal plants proposed by Peabody Energy and he's optimistic about getting them off the
drawing board through further legislation. "Right now, we are poised to make some changes in the
electric generating structure. If Congress can enact a renewable energy standard it will be an
enormous boost," he told SocialFunds.
Citigroup faulted the unfriendly political
environment for the dearth of new coal contracts for 2008. But its report expressed optimism that
the horizon for coal may still be bright if the industry can transition to new, cleaner
technologies, especially after a tough period near term leads to a shake-out among coal companies:
"Our sense is that within three years the industry will be significantly consolidated, around the
time that clean coal technologies begin to harden and national energy shortages materialize. This
should open a new chapter for Coal." The report specifically cited Peabody Coal as poised to take
advantage of opportunities in the long term, with investment in carbon capture and coal-to-liquids
But some question whether investment in building "clean coal" plants is
worthwhile, given high construction costs and technological doubts about the viability of long-term
carbon storage. Coal-to-liquids may also be vulnerable to regulatory constraints due to concerns
that the technology carries too steep an environmental price tag. To these critics, investment in
renewable energy sources like wind and solar is a better bet both for the investor and the
Coal, however, is unlikely to go away, at least in the near term. What's
unsettling investors most of all is uncertainty about just how severe the financial impact of
regulation on carbon emissions will be. Once the way forward is clearer, investors may yet favor
coal stocks again.