Coal Miners Win a Meaningless Battle over Mountaintop Removal Mining (ACI, ANR, BTU, CLF, CNX, PCX, KOL)

Coal company stock prices hit a five-year high in the summer of 2008, just before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy sent the entire global economy into a tailspin. Five-year lows hit most companies before the end of that year and they have  been making a steady, if slow, comeback since then, posting 52-week highs in the first half of this year on expectations of a global economic recovery. Stock prices have turned down again, though, as the outlook for economic recovery continues to dim.

In addition to its struggles with a weak economy, the coal industry is almost continuously fighting rear-guard battles against environmentalists and regulators. The industry, or at least some of its players, have earned the scrutiny following deadly mine explosions and for continuing the widely denounced mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The US Environmental Protection Agency tried to rein in mountaintop removal mining by invoking provisions in the Clean Water Act. In a court ruling yesterday, the industry won a victory over the EPA when the judge ruled that the agency had exceeded its enforcement authority by failing to go through the formal rulemaking process before promulgating the restrictions on mountaintop removal.

The suit was filed by the National Mining Association, an mining industry group that includes large coal miners like Arch Coal Inc. (NYSE: ACI), Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (NYSE: ANR), Peabody Energy Corp. (NYSE: BTU), Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. (NYSE: CLF), Consol Energy Inc. (NYSE: CNX), and Patriot Coal Corp. (NYSE: PCX). The court ruling is expected to remove restrictions on more than 70 mining permits that were holding up projects in Appalachia.

The EPA pointed out that the ruling is a procedural issue and that it does not affect the agency’s authority under the Clean Water Act. In fact, the EPA released in July its final guidance which replaced the interim guidance that the court ruled on yesterday.

This issue still has some time to go before it is finally played out, and coal miners will continue to struggle, but not because they can’t keep knocking the tops off Appalachian mountains. On Monday, Arch Coal revised its outlook for the 2011 fiscal year from EPS of $1.75-$2.15 to $1.00-$1.40. The company has lost production of metallurgical coal at one of its mines following a roof collapse. Several other miners have had similar problems producing the high-priced coal and that is sending mining companies back to Appalachian mines.

Typically, when production of coal is disrupted, the price of coal rises. That’s not happening this time as Australian shipments of coal are fast making up for the disruption to production following last year’s floods. And then there’s the overall weak economy, which cuts demand for energy even more.

Over the past year, all seven of the companies mentioned here have seen share prices drop from around -5% (Consol) to nearly -60% (Alpha). Whether the coal mining stocks are currently a great value or a looming value trap depends more the pace of recovery in the world’s economy than on winning a pyrrhic victory over the EPA. And today’s share price declines bear that out.

Shares of Arch Coal are down more than -2% at around noon today, at $15.44, in a 52-week range of $13.09-$36.99. Alpha’s shares are off -3.5%, at $18.49, in a 52-week range of $15.49-$68.05. Patriot shares are off more than -7.5%, at $9.28, in a 52-week range of $6.92-$29.20. The Market Vectors Coal ETF (NYSE: KOL) is up 0.3%, at $32.03, in a 52-week range of $27.42-$51.87.

Paul Ausick