Arch Coal files for bankruptcy

Arch Coal, which bills itself as one of the world’s largest coal producers, Monday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, providing further evidence of coal market misery.

St. Louis-based Arch accounts for 13% of the U.S. coal supply with mines stretching from Maryland to Wyoming and “access to all major railroads, inland waterways and a growing number of seaborne trade channels,” the company said.

Barge operators — who haul one-fifth of the country’s coal — are all too familiar with coal’s problems. Plants are closing or converting to natural gas negating the need for millions of tons of barge-delivered coal, prices and export demand are falling and producers are facing tougher environmental regulations. Arch is the fifth company to file Chapter 11 in the past year. Others are Alpha Natural Resources, Bristol, Va., Walter Energy Holdings, Birmingham, Ala., Patriot Coal Corp., Scott Depot, W. Va., and Xinergy Corp., Knoxville, Tenn.

Arch said it has reached an agreement with its lenders to restructure its debt and shed more than $4.5 billion from its balance sheet while continuing mining operations and customer shipments.

“Today’s announcement represents another significant step in our ongoing efforts to position the company for long-term success,” Arch chairman and CEO John W. Eaves said in a statement announcing the restructuring.

But the government’s latest numbers don’t paint a rosy picture for those who bank on coal.

“U.S. coal production in 2015 is expected to be about 900 million short tons (MMst), 10 percent lower than in 2014 and the lowest level since 1986,” the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said last week. Appalachian Basin production has fallen the most of the five major coal producing regions. Production last year was 40 percent below the annual average from 2010-2014.

What’s more, natural gas use is on the rise. Last April, the share of natural gas in electricity generation surpassed that of coal for the first time since EIA started collecting the data in 1973. Then it topped coal again in every month from July through October, the latest statistics available.

“The most recent Short-Term Energy Outlook estimates that 2015 power sector coal consumption will be about 764 MMst, the lowest level since 1988,” EIA said.

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Ashley Herriman

Ashley Herriman is WorkBoat's online editor.

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