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Low natgas prices, high utility stockpiles weigh on US railroad coal volumes: executives

With myriad headwinds driving down coal shipments this year, officials with Class 1 US railroads painted a dim picture of their coal business Wednesday while speaking at the Cowen and Company 8th Annual Global Transportation Conference in Boston.

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In presentations broadcast online, officials with CSX, Northern Southern, Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern and Genesee & Wyoming sited low natural gas prices, mild summer weather and high utility stockpiles as the primary causes for a drop in demand.

Fredrik Eliasson, CSX's chief sales and marketing officer, said the railroad will lose about $400 million in coal business this year compared with 2014 and by the end of this year about $1.3 billion of coal revenue will have "disappeared" over the last four years.

"I think it's more and more realistic to think that where we are from a coal perspective, we're not going to go back to kind of the high levels that we saw just four years ago," Eliasson said. "However, I do think that there are opportunities for coal to go up and down, and clearly up from where it is today, as we look at both the generating capacity that is out there and also some of the feedback that we're getting from export coal from our customers."


Eliasson noted the continued low price of natural gas has eaten away at coal generation in CSX's region. With natural gas prices at $4/MMBtu in December versus below $3/MMBtu for most of this year, "there's a big difference," he said.

"Half of the utilities we serve are in the money [with coal], essentially, at $4 versus below $3 essentially none," he said.

Eliasson added that utilities still have "elevated stockpiles" and the railroad's coal carload volumes, which are down about 12% year over year, are about 1% below the railroad's previous expectation. He added that CSX expects the "additional weakness" in the domestic coal business "will continue clearly into the fourth quarter and probably beyond that, as well."

NORFOLK SOUTHERN TO SHIP 20 MILLION ST/QUARTER

Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern's chief marketing officer, said despite a drop in coal business the railroad is maintaining its guidance of coal volumes of 20 million st/quarter for the next 18 to 24 months.

"Plant-specific analysis and customer discussions have given us confidence that coal-to-gas switching will not be impactful on the Norfolk Southern franchise during this time period," Shaw said.

Low natural gas prices and high utility stockpiles have dropped coal volumes about 17% year over year, Shaw said.

PRB COAL STOCKPILES AT 76 DAYS

Union Pacific Chief Financial Officer Ron Knight said utility stockpiles of Powder River Basin coal have reached 76 days, exceeding the five-year average by about 15 days, because of increased generation by natural gas. He added the railroad expects coal volumes in the second half of the year to be below last year's total.

Coal volumes for Union Pacific are down 16% year to date and were down 26% in the second quarter.

Knight said Union Pacific's coal business has been "triple-whammied" this year by low natural gas prices, high utility stockpiles at the start of the year and very mild weather.

Kansas City Southern Chief Financial Officer Michael Uphurch said coal volumes "continue to be challenged" by natural gas prices in the range of $2.70/MMBtu. He said a few utilities the railroad serves have difficulty competing in their market against natural gas plants when prices are so low.

PRB VOLUMES DOWN 16% FOR G&W

G&W Chief Financial Officer T.J. Gallagher said that with lower natural gas prices coal has become a much more volatile commodity than it ever has been.

G&W, which services multiple US coal basins, has seen a 20% drop in coal volumes year over year.

Coal carloads from the Powder River Basin are down 16%, or 21,000 carloads, to 108,000. The railroad has also seen a drop of 26%, or 12,000 carloads, from Northern Appalachia; a drop of 17%, or 8,000 carloads, from the Illinois Basin; and a drop of 41%, or 7,000 carloads, from coal outside the major basins mostly due to a decline in shipments out of Utah.

--Jim Levesque, jim.levesque@platts.com
--Edited by Jason Lindquist, jason.lindquist@platts.com