The First Bear to Emerge From Hibernation

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Crocuses are blooming, and throughout the North American wilderness, bears will soon be waking from their slumber. In southwestern Indiana, an early riser has been spotted.

Peabody Energy's (NYSE: BTU  ) Bear Run coal mine will soon roar into production now that a multi-year supply contract for 90 million tons of coal has been inked with electrical utilities. Solidifying future revenue of about $6 billion, this deal is enormous even for the king of coal. Although stretched out over as many as 17 years, the anticipated revenue boost adds up to more than 90% of the company's entire intake for 2008.

Peabody will invest $350 to $400 million to develop the mine, with operations beginning in the second half of this year and ramping up over the course of a few years to 8 million tons of annual production. At full production, Bear Run will be the largest surface coal mine in the eastern U.S., and it will boost Peabody's current production levels in the Illinois Basin by more than 25%.

Despite the rising profile of Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI  ) in Wyoming's Powder River Basin following a key mine purchase from Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) last week, Peabody remains the Papa Bear in both the PRB and the Illinois Basin. Leaving the lucrative Appalachian region to specialists like CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX  ) and Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE  ) , Peabody appears content to consolidate its reign within the remaining coal regions of the U.S. while keeping a foot in China's door.

Peabody's announcement will be cheered in the factories of struggling equipment makers like Joy Global (Nasdaq: JOYG  ) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) , which have clearly been bracing for the worst in recent months.

For investors with exposure to coal, Peabody could hardly have been clearer with its statement that "long-term coal demand continues to grow." I have made the case repeatedly that coal will perform well following near-term disruptions to demand, and my forecast has been echoed by Arch Coal, CONSOL Energy, and others. As the undisputed king of coal, Peabody Energy remains the easiest winner to identify within a cave of waking bears.

Further Foolishness:

The "Coal" tag within the Motley Fool CAPS community lists 21 coal companies. Find out what other investors are saying about the stocks you're watching, or share your Foolish thoughts with us. CAPS is free and fun!

Fool contributor Christopher Barker wishes he could squeeze coal into diamonds. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Arch Coal, Caterpillar, Massey Energy, and Peabody Energy. The Motley Fool scrubs its disclosure policy before releasing it into the atmosphere.

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