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Interview: US miner Corsa emulates Glencore as coking coal prices surge

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Interview: US miner Corsa emulates Glencore as coking coal prices surge

Pittsburgh — US miner Corsa Coal intends to extend its trading activities longer term and ramp up low-vol coking coal production as it meets higher US domestic steel-related demand for 2019, the company's CEO said in an interview.

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Corsa expects organic growth at mines in Pennsylvania and Maryland and sees the potential for acquisitions to support its trading portfolio, CEO George Dethlefsen said. US coking coal spot export prices have climbed through August and September, narrowing discounts with the Australian premium HCC benchmark.

"Corsa is pursuing a Glencore business model, as a basic premise to utilize its assets and resources, with the most efficient and profitable way possible," said Dethlefsen.

Increased sales volumes through trading will help lower overall costs per ton by absorbing fixed costs, as well as serving to establish relationships with international customers and building future growth potential, he added.

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Corsa is sold out for 2018 sales volume, based on a 2.1 million-2.3 million st target, and is making 2019 sales using a supply chain allowing for a wide range of coal qualities and options. US low-vol supply tightened as the key Pinnacle longwall mine faced geological issues, at a time of higher demand into US coke plants and export blends.

US miners, including Corsa, are said to have begun settling coal contract sales with US domestic buyers for 2019 at higher prices than for 2018, with timings last year dictating the scale of the increase. Price increases of more than 30% year on year may be expected in some cases, sources said.

As a company with low-vol coking coal assets and access to rail lines served by Norfolk Southern and CSX, blending and processing other grades from third parties have led sales into Turkey, Egypt and other markets.

By providing transportation and stockpiling, the company is adding to efficiencies and revenue potential in marketing a larger range of coals.

Dethlefsen has brought in experienced traders to manage and develop this strategy over the past few years: Fred Cushmore, who is VP and head of international sales, and earlier this year Matt Schicke, who assumed the role of chief commercial officer and prior was head of coal at Noble Americas Corp. in Houston.

Both have experience trading coal and solid fuels for several international trading groups, involved in physical sales and trading, origination and risk management. Dethlefsen worked at investor Quintana Capital Partners and Goldman Sachs.

Schicke has described the strategy for Corsa is to become a solution provider to customers, where a deep understanding and competitive offering in logistics, sourcing, quality and risk management complements mined coal sales.

To do this, the company will usually require additional working capital and will need to manage additional credit performance risks associated with the value-added services, Schicke said in an interview this month for conference producer Smithers.


Corsa is opening two new mines, one in 2019 and another in 2020 to boost low-vol output, Dethlefsen told the Platts Coal Marketing Days conference in Pittsburgh on Friday.

The company has just opened up the Horning Mine, and last year the greenfield Acosta mine, which complemented the Casselman mine in Maryland.

They marked the start of production growth, with Keyser and North Mine set to join in the next two years. The Quecreek coal is depleting, and tapping new mines allows qualities to improve and processing plant capacity to be fully utilized.

The recent congestion at US ports on strong export demand for US coal led to difficulties in opening up space at terminals in Baltimore and Hampton Roads and planning loadings with customers.

Railroad service has been challenging through the Appalachians and into the Midwest mills and plants, sources have said this year.

Railroad congestion and strong coal demand had led sellers and buyers to clamor to secure agreed services for deliveries, and delays over the last year may persist, Wayne Harman, head of solid fuels procurement for North America at ArcelorMittal, said at the Pittsburgh conference Friday.

"We're relatively hopeful we'll see an improvement," Harman said.

There's a lot of work needed to be done on rivers for barge services, he added.

Poor delivery rates partly contributed to more domestic sales later in the second half of this year as regional steelmakers sought more coal as US pig iron production started to climb from May.

Domestic deliveries were hit by severe weather and railroad and port force majeures last winter, forcing steel mills and coke plants to play catch-up with raw materials supplies all year.

"A constraint to increased sales and trading is port and rail access; this partly led to more domestic business as regional steelmakers sought more coal," Dethlefsen said.

Corsa Coal in August pushed up its ratio of domestic coking coal sales estimate for the year to 27%, from earlier guidance of 21%.

"We do see the situation at Lambert's Point improving as vessel queues are now starting to decline," Dethlefsen said.

Lamberts Point and other Hampton Roads terminals were said by the market to be unable to book a lot of new slots for spot vessels due to strong existing orders.

While US President Donald Trump may have been a vocal supporter of the US coal industry, US steel tariffs under Section 232, which slammed heavy duties on Turkish steel, have led to retaliation.

Corsa has supplied coals into Turkey and has sales in Asia. Following Turkey, China imposed tariffs on US coal, in retaliation to US import tariffs on steel and other goods.

"Customers in tariff-affected locations continue to seek US coking coals despite the imposition of tariffs on US imports," Dethlefsen said.

"This is a reflection of a very tight seaborne market and the inability to find replacement coals on a short-term basis." While China is a relatively small export market for US coking coal, with US data showing volumes at 1.8 million mt over January-July, making up 5.4% of total US exports, Contura Energy's chief commercial officer, Kevin Stanley, warned of potential bigger ramifications given China's influence in seaborne steel raw materials markets.

"While the impact of Chinese tariffs on US coals is arguably more smoke than fire considering the small percentage of US coals serving that market, the broader Chinese influence on global met demand is undeniable," Stanley said at the conference last week in Pittsburgh.

He said the market needs to wait and see effect of China on imports, with upcoming environmental cuts and how China's steel market absorbs the changes.

Dethlefsen has been notable over the past few years for highlighting an analysis of China's domestic coking coal costs and arbitrage-related price support levels, which in early 2017 were estimated in the $140-$150s/mt FOB benchmark equivalent.

With seaborne coking coal prices remaining above this line, more coal mine developments may be encouraged.

However, limited capital, appetite from investors and banks to fund growth projects and labor and transportation bottlenecks may create limited headroom for fresh mine expansions.

"Viewing the cost of capital both in the debt and equity markets, along with ongoing cost inflation, we believe new coking coal projects in the US require at least $150/mt," Dethlefsen said, referring to FOB benchmark grade HCC.

Debt and equity capital market are pricing in at high rates to fund coal projects, after a spate of industry restructurings and losses in 2015. The focus is on existing companies to carefully manage their portfolios and sales, consolidate, and expect a broader trend to replace production rather than grow exponentially, according to US industry sources.

--Hector Forster, hector.forster@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Fox, jonathan.fox@spglobal.com