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EARNINGS PREVIEW: US Coal Producers Adjust To Challenges

By Ben Fox Rubin Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: U.S. coal producers had seen their stocks plummet recently as the companies have battled against rising costs, increased environmental oversight and stiffer competition from cleaner-burning and sometimes cheaper natural gas. Coal is expected to cede more market share to natural gas, in what analysts say could be a permanent shift. Despite those challenges, many coal producers expect the U.S. will play a larger role in the global coal market, as exports reached near-record levels in 2011 and are poised to remain historically high this year. To bolster their future earnings, many companies are looking to ramp up exporting capacity, especially out of the massive thermal coal reserves in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU) - reports Jan. 24 Wall Street Expectations: The company is expected to earn $1.32 a share on $2.34 billion in revenue. It posted a profit of 78 cents a share, or 85 cents excluding tax-related costs, a year earlier on revenue of $1.82 billion. Key Issues: The largest U.S. coal producer by output completed its roughly $5.05 billion acquisition of the Australia-based coal-mining company Macarthur Coal Ltd. (MCC.AU), increasing its exposure to the growing Asian market. It initially pursued the purchase as a joint acquisition with ArcelorMittal (MT, MT.AE), the world's largest steelmaker, but Arcelor pulled out of the deal following the purchase, saying it no longer wanted to allocate substantial capital for a non-controlling interest in Macarthur. Peabody has recently reported stronger profits thanks to rising coal prices, and it hopes to capitalize on strong Asian demand with greater exports from its Australian mines and the Powder River Basin. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR) - reports Feb. 24 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters forecast earnings of 29 cents a share on revenue of $2.17 billion. A year earlier, it earned 9 cents a share, or 27 cents from continuing operations, on $993.1 million in revenue. Key Issues: Alpha saw its third-quarter earnings more than double thanks to stronger metallurgical coal prices and higher sales on its acquisition of Massey Energy Co., which it bought for $7.1 billion last year. As part of the Massey tie-in, Alpha inherited several civil suits related to a 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. Alpha this month settled all remaining wrongful-death lawsuits connected to the disaster, which was the worst U.S. mining accident in four decades. In December, it agreed to pay about $200 million to resolve a range of civil and criminal penalties related to the explosion. Consol Energy Inc. (CNX) - reporting date to be announced Wall Street Expectations: Analysts predict the coal and natural gas company will report a profit of 62 cents a share and revenue of $1.42 billion. The company reported year-earlier earnings of 46 cents a share, or 54 cents a share excluding one-time charges, on $1.34 billion in revenue. Key Issues: In recent quarters, Consol has posted soaring profit growth on stronger coal sales. But illustrating its increased focus on natural gas, Consol recently made several major deals to speed up the development of its shale-rock assets. Hess Corp. (HES) agreed to pay about $593 million for a 50% stake in Consol's Utica Shale holdings in Ohio, allowing Consol to explore the acreage for 25 cents on the dollar. In August, Noble Energy Inc. (NBL) said it would pay $3.4 billion for a 50% stake in Consol's Marcellus Shale fields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, helping Consol hasten production at the sprawling site. The company raised its capital budget by 21% for 2012, pushing a large slice of the funds toward developing its Marcellus assets. Arch Coal Inc. (ACI) - reporting date to be announced Wall Street Expectations: The company is expected to post income of 33 cents a share on $1.31 billion in revenue. For the same quarter last year, Arch Coal posted a per-share profit of 29 cents, or 33 cents excluding acquisition-related charges and other items, on revenue of $835.4 million. Key Issues: Arch slashed its full-year adjusted earnings forecast twice last year, mostly on weaker-than-expected coal production at a West Virginia mine complex. In June, Arch bought International Coal Group Inc. for about $3.4 billion, expanding its exposure to metallurgical coal production, a market that is growing due to Asian demand. Higher sales prices have boosted revenue, but profits have suffered amid production challenges. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Ben Fox Rubin, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3108;

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