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Coronavirus pandemic accelerating need for coal production cutbacks amid declining demand

Highlights

IB output down 21% on year, coal burn down 36%

Outlook for PRB 'mixed at best' given dropping demand

Houston — Declining US coal-fired power demand, hit further by the coronavirus pandemic pressuring electricity demand, has pushed major coal basins into oversupply and utility stockpiles to multi-year highs, requiring producers to consider permanent cutbacks, B Riley FBR analysts said Friday.

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"While YTD US coal production is at its lowest level in decades, demand declines have been even sharper," B Riley analysts Lucas Pipes, Daniel Day and Matthew Key said in a report. The combined impact of elevated coal stockpiles and subdued US electricity demand from the economic shutdown "has led to little-to-no activity in the spot market" and led some producers to expect to sell less than their contracted 2020 volumes, they said.

"Even before the COVID-19 outbreak tipped the thermal coal market deep into oversupply, ESG concerns had been weighing on thermal coal producers' share prices for some time," adding that wind power generated a greater portion of US electricity generation than coal over three separate days.

The analysts also noted that "since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdown of much of the industrial production in the US, the power load on most weekdays more closely resembles a typical weekend, underscoring the dramatic decline in overall power demand during the lockdown."

"This, in combination with the fact that March-May comprise the spring 'shoulder season' where mild weather results in very little electricity demand for heating or air conditioning, has been bad news for thermal coal demand," the analysts said.

ILLINOIS BASIN

According to the B Riley FBR analysts, the Illinois Basin represents the best prospects from a supply and demand perspective as it has had the strongest supply-side response.

Through 15 weeks, IB output totaled 25.6 million st, down 21% from the year-ago period, while could burn dropped 36%.

Declining output in 2020 is expected to intensify following Alliance's decision to idle all of its IB mines from March 31-April 26 at minimum, the analysts said.

B Riley estimated the IB market is currently oversupplied by about 30 million st on an annualized basis, with annualized output projected at 88.8 million st and 53.4 million st of demand expected.

Additionally, "utilities' stockpiles remain elevated and we expect little, if any, spot sales will occur over the next few months," the analysts said, adding that IB stocks were currently over 25 million st.

"Arguably, one of the biggest reasons for the attractive supply/demand picture in the IB is because [Alliance] itself chose to temporarily idle production," the analysts said, adding that it should likely be sufficient enough to bring a rough balance to the basin.

However, they added, "when Alliance restarts production, more higher cost producers need to exit the market permanently."

PRB AND NAPP OVERSUPPLY

The Powder River Basin and the Northern Appalachian basin are "in deep oversupply," the analysts said, adding that "demand declines in the PRB and NAPP regions have meaningfully outpaced cuts to supply."

According to the report, utility stockpiles in both basins are at their highest levels since mid-2017.

The analysts estimated NAPP is oversupplied on an annualized basis by 35 million st.

"Even if we were to use the optimistic assumption that exports remain flat relative to 2019 levels, it is hard to see that basin getting balanced with further reductions," the analysts said.

Through the year so far, NAPP output is 30.6 million st, down 14% year on year, although a sharper decline is expected following CONSOL's decision to idle some of its mines.

Coal burn data indicated NAPP demand declined 33% compared with the year-ago period, while utility stockpiles were estimated at over 30 million st, up 60% from the year-ago period.

In the PRB, consolidation "is sorely needed as demand has continued to decline more quickly than supply has come offline, and COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate demand declines."

The analysts estimated annualized supply exceeds demand by approximately 51 million st even with current output at its weakest on record, and "with the Arch/Peabody JV held up in court proceedings, the outlook here as it relates to the PRB is mixed at best," the analysts said.

"While the decline in production helps balance the market to an extent, supply cuts through March have not been sufficient to offset the severe decline in demand," they said.

Coal burn data shows demand down over 30% year to date compared with 2019, and utility stockpiles are over 70 million st, up 60% year on year.