James River Coal Files for Bankruptcy

24/7 Wall St.

The natural gas revolution claimed its first coal-mining victim after markets closed Monday night. James River Coal Co. (JRCC) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it tries to find either investors or buyers.

The Appalachia-based coal miner's stock hit a peak of $60 a share in mid-2008 before plunging below $10 later in the same year. But the firm was never able fully to recover, either from the economic downturn or later the burgeoning supply of cheap natural gas. Shares fell below $2 last year and have traded at less than $1 since early March.

The company closed four Kentucky mines in November, adding to the eight it had already shut down. James River blamed cheap and plentiful natural gas and new federal environmental regulations for its demise. Of the two, low coal prices brought on by cheap natural gas should get the larger share of the blame.

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James River will continue to operate as a debtor-in-position with $110 million in financing supplied by "several large financial funds."

Thermal coal used to fire coal-burning power plants fell to around $59 a ton last year and has recovered only to around $60 a ton this year. In 2008, thermal coal prices topped $135 a ton.

The story is the same for the metallurgical coal used in making steel, now at six-year lows. Last month Goldman Sachs cut its price estimate for met coal from $150 per metric ton to $141 and lowered the firm's estimates for 2015 and 2016 as well.

Competition from Australian coal miners and lower demand from China are expected to lead to lower prices. In late March, Australian prices for met coal fell below $100 a metric ton, the lowest price in more than a year.

New environmental regulations will lead to the closure of about 8.5% of U.S. coal-fired power plants by 2016. For the most part these are older, dirtier plants that cannot be economically upgraded to meet new emissions requirements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently invalidated a permit issued to Arch Coal Inc. (ACI) for a mountaintop removal project, further evidence that coal miners face some difficult times.

James River shares closed down 4.3% on Monday to $0.7154 in a 52-week range of $0.55 to $3.50.

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