Shares of Appalachian coal and gas producer CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX ) have been mired in weakness ever since the company announced its bold move last month to acquire 1 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of tasty-looking natural gas reserves from Dominion Resources (NYSE: D ) .
Of course, the high-profile tragedy at Massey Energy's (NYSE: MEE ) Big Upper Creek mine has cast a pall over the entire group of Appalachian coal producers, but for long-term investors who don't mind mixing gas exposure into their coal plays, CONSOL's latest earnings report may provide a timely glimpse of the growth potential that the market may be overlooking here.
Backing out the $47 million in acquisition fees, and some smaller items, CONSOL earned $154 million in the first quarter. Given the incredible growth in export demand for coking coal, improving metrics for thermal coal demand on the domestic front, and CONSOL's ongoing acquisition of its majority-owned subsidiary CNX Gas (NYSE: CXG, I think it's pretty clear that present profitability marks only the beginning of a looming earnings growth spurt that may last for years. Not surprisingly, CONSOL sports a price-to-earnings-growth (PEG) ratio of just 1.26.
For starters, let's consider CONSOL's position in the met coal market. Diverting coal that would normally have been sold into the domestic thermal market straight into exports to Asian steelmakers, CONSOL enjoys a strategic advantage over its regional competitors with a wholly owned coal export terminal in Baltimore. Just as the seemingly insatiable Asian demand is prompting miners Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) and BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP ) to build new export capacity in Newcastle, New South Wales, CONSOL is pondering a move to expand capacity at its Baltimore port by 10% or more. Brokered by the same coal export contracting firm that represents competitor Patriot Coal (NYSE: PCX ) , these seaborne shipments from Appalachia to Asia mark a significant sea-change in the very structure of global coal markets.
Looking to the coveted Marcellus shale assets in its newly enhanced natural gas portfolio, CONSOL envisions a high-paced development effort that may involve joint ventures to rapidly realize shareholder value. On the strength of fast-tracked Marcellus production, CONSOL is targeting a 148% expansion of natural gas production to reach 350 Bcf by 2015.
Especially considering the operational synergy inherent in CONSOL's unique combination of layered coal and gas production potential from several of CONSOL's properties, I consider the market's collective response to CONSOL's gaseous gamble excessively punitive. I share CEO J. Brett Harvey's contention that "CONSOL Energy's stock has yet to reflect our position as the leading diversified fuel producer in Appalachia with rapid growth opportunities provided by the Dominion transaction," and I have added CONSOL Energy to my Motley Fool CAPS portfolio as evidence of that conviction. If you have an opinion of the company that you would like to share, I encourage you to sound-off in the comments section below, or join me in CAPS and make your own call.
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