This column was originally published on RealMoney on Oct. 20 at 10:59 a.m. EDT. It's being republished as a bonus for TheStreet.com readers.It's still somewhat hard to believe that traders are sitting around this week waiting on pins and needles for the earnings report of a coal miner. Strange as it may seem, coal producers have become the "it" stocks of 2005. When formerly highflying oil and gas stocks were crushed early this month as fears of "demand destruction" trumped old fears of scarcity, the stocks of most coal miners sailed along unperturbed. Many of the big-caps are just a bit of black dust away from their all-time highs, as earnings reports in the group so far have been awesome. In a tip of the cap to the city that lost its bid for a National League pennant, let's take a look at St. Louis-based miner Arch Coal ( ACI), which reports on Monday. It has had an amazing journey over the past 10 years. From 1992 to 1998, while technology stocks were rocking, it range-traded between $21 and $30 -- just about as boring as you can imagine. And then Arch shares plunged 80% over a two-year period into total irrelevancy, hitting a low of $4.70 just as the Nasdaq Composite was peaking in mid-2000. At that point, investors suddenly caught the value religion and gave Arch a strong bid, pulling it to $38 by early 2001 before trashing it once more a year later. Investors saved the best for last, though, as the stock broke to an all-time high at $39 late last year, and then kept pulling on the string, sending the stock on a gentle upward trajectory to its latest perch at $72 as coal became increasingly popular as an alternative to natural gas and oil. Arch has become the nation's second-largest coal producer, focusing on clean-burning, low-sulphur rock that it sells to 120-plus power plants in 30-plus states, as well as to steelmakers both here and abroad. Most of it comes from 13 mining complexes in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming, as well as West Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky and Virginia. It has at least 3.7 billion tons of coal reserves under its thumb, and it sells more than 140 million tons a year. The company says it supplies 13% of all U.S. coal and provides fuel for 7% of the nation's electricity. The toughest bituminous stuff, called metallurgical coal, has the right physical makeup to be turned into coke, which is the solid carbon source of heat to smelt iron ore and create steel.
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