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Top Northern Appalachian coal mines ramp up Q1 output as pandemic pressure eases

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A miner prepares to be transported to the longwall face at Consol Energy Inc.'s Enlow Fork coal mine in Pennsylvania. Production from the complex hit a record for first-quarter volumes in 2021.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

The top 25 coal mines in the Northern Appalachian basin produced more coal in the first quarter of 2021, beating levels from both the prior quarter and the first quarter of 2020, as pressure from COVID-19 lockdowns eased.

The region's 25 largest mines by production generated 22.3 million tons of coal in the first quarter, increasing from 19.1 million tons in the prior quarter and 19.0 million tons in the first quarter of 2020, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis.

The Northern Appalachian coal basin spans Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. Many of the largest operations in the region deploy longwall mining machines, a highly productive form of underground mining.

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First-quarter deliveries to power plants from Northern Appalachia mines totaled 10.6 million tons and will likely hold constant through the rest of 2021, said Steve Piper, director of energy research at Market Intelligence.

"Northern Appalachian mines have managed to retain a portion of their U.S. power generation business, owing to high-quality coal and shorter delivery routes to customers," Piper said. "Market Intelligence estimates that 56% of Northern Appalachia production will go to U.S. power plants this year, with the balance sold into industrial customers, and into export markets as steam coal or metallurgical coal complements."

The largest coal mine in the region, Consol Energy Inc.'s Bailey mine, produced 3.8 million tons of coal in the quarter, up from 2.8 million tons in the same quarter of 2020. The company also increased production at its Harvey mine year over year. At its Enlow Fork mine, production decreased year over year while increasing quarter over quarter. The company operates the three mines as a large complex in Pennsylvania.

The complex set a record for first-quarter coal production while achieving record low cash costs, Consol President and CEO Jimmy Brock said on a May 4 earnings call.

Consol has pivoted to export markets due to waning domestic coal demand. Pointing to sustained improvements in the seaborne thermal coal market since the end of the third quarter of 2020, Consol reported increased demand and higher prices for its coal, particularly in India. In the first quarter, seaborne coal shipments accounted for 48% of the company's shipments, Brock said, adding that international customers are offering more competitive prices.

Brock said the company is "further reducing our exposure to the declining U.S. coal market." However, pressure on seaborne markets could soon increase. In a May 18 release, the International Energy Agency called for "no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants" to achieve net-zero emissions worldwide.

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Privately-held American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc. operates six of the top 25 mines in the region. The company was formed in late 2020 through a bankruptcy reorganization of Murray Energy Corp., and has substantially increased coal production. Five of the company's longwall coal mining operations in the region were acquired from Consol in 2013. Cumulatively, American Consolidated's six mines produced 8.6 million tons of coal in the first quarter, up from 7.1 million tons in the prior quarter and 6.8 million tons in the first quarter of 2020.

The six American Consolidated mines in the region produced 28.4 million tons of coal in the 12 months ended March 31, decreasing year over year from 36.4 million tons.

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In the first quarter, Alliance Resource Partners LP produced 1.9 million tons of coal from Tunnel Ridge, the fourth largest mine in the region by production volume, down slightly from the prior quarter. The company reported weather-related delays impacted sales at the mine during the first quarter.

Arch Resources Inc. increased production quarter over quarter at its Leer and Leer South coal mines in the region, both of which produce metallurgical coal used to make steel. The company has been pivoting away from thermal coal used in power generation and touts a bright future for its metallurgical coal assets based on a need for steel as the world focuses on building up infrastructure and decarbonizing the economy.

The company also noted "rapidly diminishing operational and economic impacts of the pandemic" in its first-quarter earnings release. Employees at the Leer mine in West Virginia have continued to find new ways to "ratchet up its performance" by cutting costs and increasing efficiencies, President and CEO Paul Lang said during an April 22 earnings call.

Arch expects to start up longwall mining operations at the nearby Leer South mine in the third quarter, which is expected to increase production and drive the company's metallurgical coal segment costs downward. The company announced plans to develop the new mine in early 2019.

"We're just a few months away from commissioning the longwall and we're more confident than ever about the transformational impact the new mine will have on our cash-generating capabilities," Lang said. "Moreover, the Leer South start-up will represent another significant step in our ongoing transition into a pure-play coking coal producer."