Coal stocks have surged this year – along with the wider energy sector – but experts warn these are likely short-term gains for an industry facing a bleak future as regulators, activists and global governments seek to cut use of fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Coal stocks are benefitting from the upturn in the broader energy sector on expectations of increased demand amid an economic recovery, Tony Zabiegala, chief operating officer at Strategic Wealth Partners in Independence, Ohio, told Forbes.
Zabiegala added that while coal investors may see some near-term gains this year, they’re facing a longer-term uphill battle as the momentum of investing gravitates towards “green energy” stocks and away from fossil fuels.
Coal stocks are also benefiting from rising prices of its main rival, natural gas, Tony Scott, managing director of analytics at BTU Analytics, a Denver-based energy analysis and consulting firm, told Forbes.
Scott noted that some power plants located in the Midwest and Northeast, areas with access to the lowest cost coal, may switch from gas to coal as it’s cheaper to use now.
Longer term, Scott cautioned, coal generation still “remains at risk” as both federal and state policies target lower carbon emission goals.
Ed Egilinsky, managing director and head of alternative investments at Direxion, an exchange-traded fund provider, told Forbes that most coal stocks are micro-cap and small-cap in size, a segment of the market that has performed well this year.
Stocks in the coal sector have jumped 33.5% year-to-date through Wednesday, according to TradingView, a trading platform, far outperforming the broader S&P 500 index which has gained about 11%. Some coal stocks, including Peabody Energy, CONSOL Energy and Hallador Energy, have surged 96.7%, 65.6%, and 64.6% year to date, respectively. However, by most parameters, the U.S. coal industry is in decline, raising questions about these companies’ long-term viability. Many major countries have planned to phase out their coal industries in the coming years, including Germany, Canada, U.K. and France. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that coal production in the fourth quarter of 2020 plunged 18.8% compared with the same period in 2019. Coal consumption in the U.S. dropped by 6.9% over that period. U.S. coal exports plummeted 26% between 2019 and 2020, EIA noted. Various coal-powered plants in the U.S., including American Electric Power’s Rockport plant in Indiana and The Tennessee Valley Authority, plan to shutter coal plants in the next few years.
The global coal industry is not dead yet. The world’s two largest coal consumers – China and India– plan to increase consumption this year, according to EIA. China and India alone account for two-thirds of global coal use to feed their escalating electricity demand. Despite China’s pledge to start phasing out coal beginning in 2026 and cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2060, Beijing officials declared that coal will remain a key part of China’s energy mix. Li Gao, head of the climate change office at China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, recently said China will still need to construct more coal-powered plants to guarantee a stable energy supply. Nonetheless, Zabiegala says with innovations in green energy, the global consumption of coal “will decrease-but we are several decades away from turning that corner.”