Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, hopes to reorganize and reduce its estimated $10 billion debt. It once planned to export millions of tons of coal a year through a proposed terminal in Whatcom County.
Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, the most powerful convulsion yet in an industry still waiting for the coal market to bottom out.
The company seeks to reorganize U.S. operations in federal court in its hometown of St. Louis, reducing an estimated $10.1 billion in debt, according to court filings. It’s the biggest U.S. corporate bankruptcy this year by liabilities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The outcome of the case may turn on what happens to coal prices during the course of the reorganization, with battles over environmental obligations and non-bankrupt Australian operations complicating matters, according to analysts and environmental activists.
Founded in 1883 by 24-year-old Francis S. Peabody with $100, a wagon and two mules, Peabody is now the largest private-sector coal company in the world. It joins four other large coal companies that have sought bankruptcy during the slump — a result of tougher environmental policies, a flood of cheap natural gas and a global glut of metallurgical coal that’s dragged prices for the steelmaking component to the lowest in more than 10 years.
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“The outlook for coal players remains bleak,” said Sandra Chow, a Singapore-based credit analyst who tracks coal producers at CreditSights. “Any recovery remains a long way from here.”
Peabody, which had revenue of $5.6 billion in 2015 and about 7,100 employees globally, will keep operating, according to court papers.
Peabody once planned to export up to 24 million metric tons of coal per year through the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Whatcom County. It announced the export agreement in 2011, a time when coal markets were strong and prospects looked bullish for shipping western coal to Asia.
But Bob Watters, a spokesman for terminal developer SSA Marine, said Peabody’s option had expired and it no longer has any agreement to use the terminal. Watters said the Chapter 11 filing “will have no impact on the project.”
The price of metallurgical coal has tumbled about 75 percent since its 2011 peak. That’s been particularly painful for Peabody, which spent $4 billion in 2011 to acquire Australia’s MacArthur Coal to expand its sales of the steelmaking component.
“It wasn’t a question of whether Peabody was going to file, it was a question of when and would they include the Australian assets,” Jeremy Sussman, a New York-based analyst for Clarksons Platou Securities, said by phone Wednesday. He called the MacArthur acquisition “ill-fated.”
“I very much expect them to go through a restructuring where the vast majority of assets that are producing today will produce for the foreseeable future,” Sussman said. “It’s much more of a balance-sheet restructuring than anything else.”
The analyst said most of Peabody’s mines make money, unlike those belonging to other bankrupt miners, such as Walter Energy or Alpha Natural Resources.
Peabody said it will use the bankruptcy to cut debt and improve cash flow. It remained upbeat about its product.
“Coal currently fuels approximately 40 percent of global electricity and is expected to be an essential source of global electricity generation and steel making for many decades to come,” a company statement issued alongside the court filing said.
The Energy Information Administration estimates coal generated about 28 percent of U.S. electricity in December. Demand from power plants and steel-makers should remain weak through 2016, but India and Southeast Asia will be bright spots, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Andrew Cosgrove.
“This isn’t a death knell for coal. It’s the pains of a shrinking industry,” Cosgrove said.