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Alliance Resource Partners (ARLP) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript

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Alliance Resource Partners (ARLP -6.06%)
Q4 2023 Earnings Call
Jan 29, 2024, 10:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Greetings. Welcome to Alliance Resource Partners LP fourth quarter 2023 earnings conference call. At this time, all participants are in listen-only mode. A question-and-answer session will follow the formal presentation.

[Operator instructions] Please note, this conference is being recorded. At this time, it’s my pleasure to turn the conference over to Cary P. Marshall, senior vice president and chief financial officer. Mr.

Marshall, you may now begin.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, operator, and welcome, everyone. Earlier this morning, Alliance Resource Partners released its fourth quarter and full year 2023 financial and operating results, and we will now discuss those results, as well as our perspective on current market conditions and outlook for 2024. Following our prepared remarks, we will open the call to answer your questions. Before beginning, a reminder that some of our remarks today may include forward-looking statements, subject to a variety of risks, uncertainties, and assumptions contained in our filings from time to time with the Securities and Exchange Commission and are also reflected in this morning’s press release.

While these forward-looking statements are based on information currently available to us, if one or more of these risks or uncertainties materialize or if our underlying assumptions prove incorrect, actual results may vary materially from those we projected or expected. In providing these remarks, the partnership has no obligation to publicly update or revise any forward-looking statement, whether as a result of new information, future events, or otherwise, unless required by law to do so. Finally, we will also be discussing certain non-GAAP financial measures. Definitions and reconciliations of the differences between these non-GAAP financial measures and the most directly comparable GAAP financial measures are contained at the end of ARLP’s press release, which has been posted on our website and furnished to the SEC on Form 8-K.

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With the required preliminaries out of the way, I will begin with a review of our results for the fourth quarter and full year, give an overview of our 2024 guidance, then turn the call over to Joe Craft, our chairman, president, and chief executive officer, for his comments. During 2023, we delivered another record full year in terms of revenues, coal sales price per ton, oil and gas royalty volumes, and net income. We accomplished these records in a challenging year for the global economy, pressured by high interest rates, global geopolitical unrest, and continued volatility in commodity prices. Operationally, we had to contend with reduced volumes across the Appalachia region, primarily caused by lower recoveries, fewer operating units at MC Mining, and challenging geologic conditions that delayed development of a new district at our Mettiki longwall operation.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, we achieved our outstanding results through a combination of our well-contracted order book, tight focus on operating efficiencies, and investment for longer-term strategic positioning with our customers. Full year revenues were 2.6 billion, an increase from 2.4 billion in 2022. Net income was 630.1 million, up from 586.2 million. And earnings per unit increased nearly 10% from $4.39 in 2022 to $4.81 in 2023.

Looking more closely at the fourth quarter comparisons, total revenues were 625.4 million in the 2023 quarter, compared to 704.2 million in the 2022 quarter. The year-over-year decline was driven primarily by lower coal prices, lower oil and gas prices, and reduced coal sales volumes in Appalachia, which more than offset record oil and gas royalty volumes and higher transportation and other revenues. Total coal sales price per ton was $60.60 for the 2023 quarter, a decrease of 10.7% versus the 2022 quarter. Softer demand in both domestic and international markets resulting from a mild start to winter and lower natural gas prices negatively impacted coal pricing.

This was partially offset by the positive impacts of our contracted order book. On a sequential basis, coal sales price per ton was 6.7% lower. As it relates to volumes, total coal production of 7.9 million tons was 6.6% lower compared to the 2022 quarter, while coal sales volumes decreased 7.5% to 8.6 million tons compared to the 2022 quarter. Illinois Basin coal sales volumes increased by 2.1% and 6.1% compared to the 2022 and sequential quarters, respectively.

The increase is the result of higher volumes from our Hamilton and Warrior mines compared to the 2022 quarter and from our Gibson South operations sequentially. Coal sales volumes in Appalachia were down 27.4% and 8.8%, respectively, compared to the 2022 and sequential quarters. The reduced volumes across the region was primarily caused by lower recoveries, reduced operating units at MC Mining, a scheduled longwall move at our Tunnel Ridge mine, and challenging geologic conditions at our Mettiki longwall operation that delayed the development of a new longwall district. Additionally, 2023 quarter coal inventory and tons sold were negatively impacted by approximately 0.6 million tons due to an unexpected temporary outage at a third-party Gulf Coast export terminal we use for export market sales.

In our royalties segments, total revenues were 53 million in the 2023 quarter, down 1.9% year over year, but essentially unchanged sequentially. The year-over-year decrease in revenues reflects lower realized oil and gas commodity pricing that more than offset record oil and gas volumes and increases in coal royalty revenue per ton. Specifically, coal royalty revenue per ton was up 24.3% compared to the 2022 quarter, while lower commodity prices led to oil and gas royalties average realized sales prices being down 19.7% per BOE versus the 2022 quarter. Sequentially, coal royalty revenue per ton was 0.9% lower and oil and gas royalties average sales prices were up 0.9% per BOE.

Oil and gas royalty volumes increased 13.1% on a BOE basis to a new record, while coal royalty tons sold declined 5.4% year over year. The record volumes from oil and gas resulted from increased drilling and completion activities on our interests and acquisitions of additional oil and gas mineral interests. Turning to costs. Segment adjusted EBITDA expense per ton sold for our co-operations was $42.91, an increase of 7.9% and 4.2% versus the 2022 and sequential quarters, respectively.

The impacts of lower volumes I just discussed in Appalachia and higher-cost purchased coal more than offset improvements in the Illinois Basin. Specifically, the Illinois Basin saw higher volumes and lower expenses at the Hamilton mine as compared to the 2022 quarter when the facility experienced an unexpected outage that lasted four weeks. Last quarter, we gave additional color to our Appalachian longwall operation at Mettiki. It was in — it was idle for the entire third quarter and into the fourth quarter but returned to production in late December.

In 2024, we expect to move the longwall again, skipping over a region of adverse geology, and resume production under much more favorable mining conditions in March. This is expected to benefit overall production volumes and cost in Appalachia in 2024 when compared to the back half of 2023, which is reflected in the guidance I will discuss in a moment. Our net income in the 2023 quarter was 115.4 million, 46.8% lower as compared to the 2022 quarter. The decrease reflects the previously discussed lower coal sales volumes and realized prices, higher production expenses, and lower realized prices in oil and gas royalties, partially offset by higher coal royalty sales price per ton realizations and record volumes in oil and gas royalties.

EBITDA for the quarter was 185.4 million, down 37.6% as compared to the 2022 quarter. Now, turning to our balance sheet and uses of cash. Alliance generated free cash flow for the full year 2023 of 421.6 million. During the 2023 quarter, we completed two acquisitions of mineral interests, totaling 24.8 million, for 3,236 net royalty acres in the Permian, Anadarko, and Williston basins.

Additionally, during the 2023 quarter, we paid a quarterly distribution of $0.70 per unit, equating to an annualized rate of $2.80 per unit. This distribution level is unchanged sequentially and as compared to the 2022 quarter. Lastly, we reduced our debt outstanding by 22.9 million, resulting in total and net leverage ratios of 0.37 and 0.31 times, respectively, total debt to trailing 12 months adjusted EBITDA. Total liquidity was 492.1 million at year-end, which included 59.8 million of cash on the balance sheet.

Turning to our initial guidance detailed in this morning’s release. 2024 is shaping up to be a solid year for our ARLP, with a well-contracted order book and the opportunity to flex additional export tons should market conditions warrant the move. As you will notice, we have provided some additional color to our outlook by detailing both estimated realized pricing and cost per ton by region. Our expected realized full year 2024 price is based on a combination of our contracted order book and our expectations for additional contracting, both domestic and export, for the open position.

We expect the logistic issues that pressured the second half of 2023, including low river system water levels and an extended outage at the third-party export terminal we utilize in the Gulf of Mexico, to no longer impact 2024 results. We anticipate ARLP’s overall coal sales volumes in 2024 to be in a range of 34 million to 35.8 million tons, with over 90% of these volumes committed and priced at attractive levels, similar to the 2023 average realized pricing. Specifically, our committed tonnage for 2024 is 32.5 million tons, including 28.4 million domestically and 4.1 million to the export markets. Coal sales prices in the Illinois Basin are expected to range between $54.50 and $56 per ton, compared to $55.21 per ton in 2023; and in Appalachia, in the range of $80.50 to $83.50 per ton, compared to $86.98 per ton sold in 2023.

On the cost side, we expect full year 2024 segment adjusted EBITDA expense per ton in the Illinois Basin to be in a range of $35.25 to $37.25 per ton, as compared to $34.84 in 2023; and in Appalachia, $54.25 to $57.25 per ton, as compared to $53.15 per ton in 2023. During the full year 2024, we have three scheduled longwall moves at Hamilton, three at Tunnel Ridge, and two at Mettiki, with one of the moves at Mettiki and one at Hamilton scheduled in March. In our oil and gas royalties segment, we expect sales of 1.4 million to 1.5 million barrels of oil, 5.6 million to 6 million MCF of natural gas, and 675,000 to 725,000 barrels of liquid. Segment adjusted EBITDA expense is expected to be approximately 12% of oil and gas royalties revenues for the year.

In 2024, we are anticipating 450 million to 500 million in total capital expenditures. Consistent with messaging in recent quarters, 2023 and 2024 are years of elevated capital expenditures as we make long-term strategic investments in our River View, Warrior, Hamilton, and Tunnel Ridge mines to ensure they remain reliable, low-cost operations for many years to come. Starting in 2025, we anticipate our capital expenditures to return to more normalized levels of $6.75 to $7.75 per ton produced. Additionally, we remain committed to investing in our oil and gas minerals business.

The amount of which will be dependent upon the opportunities available that meet our underwriting standards. Next, we remain focused on continuing to improve our balance sheet, maintaining flexibility and strong liquidity. We expect to retire the 285 million outstanding on our senior notes periodically throughout the balance of 2024 using a combination of operating cash flows and a number of attractive financing options currently available to us, including increases to our existing facilities, equipment financings, and utilizing the collateral value of our high-quality and unencumbered royalty assets, all of which are at various stages of execution today. Thereafter, we will continue to evaluate the highest return and best use of excess cash flow.

This includes returning capital to our unitholders in the form of cash distributions or unit repurchases and accretive growth opportunities that extend beyond our base business. With that, I will turn the call over to Joe for comments on the market and his outlook for ARLP. Joe.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Cary, and good morning, everyone. I want to begin my comments by thanking and congratulating the entire Alliance organization for their resilience, continued hard work, and dedication for delivering another record year for total revenue, realized pricing per ton sold, oil and gas royalty volumes, and net income. Cary did an excellent job summarizing our 2023 results and outlining our guidance for the upcoming year, as well as explaining the factors that contributed to our success in 2023. As we looked at 2024, our coal sales book is expected to be equally as strong as last year and be the anchor to deliver another solid year of revenue.

Our dependability and the reliability of our coal quality are highly valued by our customers, evidenced by the premium pricing we have received relative to the spot market on recent commitments with domestic customers for multiyear contracts. We are entering 2024 with over 90% of our coal sales volumes committed and priced at similar levels relative to 2023. We are expecting our production to be more consistent than 2023, believing we have moved beyond the several negative geologic areas that we faced this past year. As we think about the outlook for the coal industry and the markets we serve, several key themes emerge, underscoring the critical need for reliable, affordable baseload fuel for electric generation.

The first relates to increasing market expectations for nationwide energy demand. Over the past year, we should all take notice that grid planners have nearly doubled five-year load growth forecasts in support of ongoing investment in U.S. industrial and manufacturing sectors, as well as citing rising energy needs associated with data centers and artificial intelligence. While the speed of electrifying the transportation sector may have slowed, the enthusiasm for AI has accelerated.

The power demand requirements for data center cannot be understated, highlighted by recent estimates that electric demand from operational and announced data centers in the U.S. will reach over 30 gigawatts in the coming years, with some individual sites needing upwards of 600 megawatts of power. These increased revisions are not temporary fluctuations but represent fundamental changes to energy consumption patterns. Just last week, the governor of Indiana announced Facebook parent, Meta, will build an $800 million data center on a 600-acre site in Jeffersonville, Indiana, across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.

And the governor said that his state aims to be the AI capital of the Midwest, while Kentucky’s governor for several years has declared Kentucky as the undisputed electric battery production capital of the United States of America. Both of these messages suggest more to come. More proof to support our belief that load growth in our key markets will be exceptionally strong over this decade. Furthermore, we are observing a renewed emphasis in urgency by regulatory bodies such as FERC and NERC to ensure power grid reliability, a fundamental attribute coal-fired generation provides.

In the markets we serve, regulators, elected officials, and leaders focused on economic development. Our evaluating actions needed to ensure reliable electricity capacity is available to meet this growing electric demand, especially in peak times. Impacts from weather time and time again display the weakness of the grid domestically and, unfortunately, at times, the danger to consumers. Two weeks ago, after what was a relatively mild start to this winter, the U.S.

experienced a cold snap in which over three-quarters of the country was exposed to below-freezing temperatures, and hundreds of thousands were without power. From Texas to the eastern United States, winter demand approached record levels, and the state’s grid operators asked for consumers to curb consumption due to a capacity shortage. It is times like that when wind turbines are often unable to turn and natural gas pipelines can be constrained in their ability to deliver, that the grid is tested, and failure can have catastrophic consequences. Having this strategic flexibility of coal on the ground elevates the service and reliability we provide to unmatched levels.

It is for reasons similar to these that we believe the U.S. will continue to see delays and extensions in the premature closure of critical coal plants and why we are committed to serve these markets for many years to come. Over the past year, utilities have extended the plant operating life of approximately 10 gigawatts of coal generating capacity as a result of increasing electricity demand and delays in the construction of replacement generation, particularly renewables. We acknowledge the U.S.

grid will evolve with time, but policy decision-makers must be responsible and practical in doing so and currency policy needs to reflect the realities of exploding demand and of the laws of physics that dictate how electricity is generated, transmitted, and delivered. We believe we are well positioned to be part of the long-term solution supplying reliable, affordable baseload energy for consumers and creating long-term value for our unitholders. Now, turning to strategic updates related to our business. In 2024, we expect to complete the major infrastructure projects at Tunnel Ridge, Hamilton, Warrior, and the River View complex.

As Cary mentioned, ARLP will start to recognize the benefits from these strategic investments in 2025 as capital expenditures will be significantly lower and our mines will be more productive, ensuring we maintain our position as the most reliable low-cost producer in the United States — in the eastern United States over the next decade. Turning to our royalties segment. We remain committed to growing our oil and gas royalties business, which delivered record volumes in 2023. Over the past year, we acquired $111 million in additional oil and gas minerals, primarily concentrated in the Permian Basin.

This marks our largest investment year since 2019. We love the cash flow potential the segment offers via hedge-free exposure to commodity price and organic growth. As we look to 2024, I would comment that during periods of commodity price volatility, the size and timing of acquisitions can be difficult to predict as our growth strategy relies on strict underwriting standards for investment that we will not compromise in tight markets. We also remain committed to pursuing growth opportunities beyond coal and oil and gas royalties.

As we advance these initiatives, our investment decisions will be selective, aligned with our core competencies, and focused on areas where we can add significant strategic value. Let me be clear, we are not interested in building a portfolio of passive venture capital-style investments. Initial positions should be thought of as potential platforms for future lines of business with long-term growth and cash flow generation. To that end, two weeks ago, we announced that our wholly owned subsidiary, Matrix Design Group, entered into an agreement with Infinitum to develop and distribute high-efficiency, reliable motors and advanced motor controllers designed specifically for the mining industry.

This collaboration represents a natural progression and extension of our initial investment in Infinitum back in 2022. We believe their groundbreaking motor technology will bring much-needed innovation to the mining industry by delivering more efficient and higher-performing production equipment. Specific to Alliance, we believe their technology will improve our mining processes, reduce capital and operating costs, and help extend the life of certain mining equipment. Additionally, while we are unable to publicly quantify any potential revenue impacts at this time, we believe the relationship could lead to new revenue streams for Matrix by selling additional products to third-party mining customers and OEMs around the world like Matrix is currently doing as a technology leader for underground proximity detection systems.

In closing, our business continues to be a generator of strong cash flows that positions us to continue improving our balance sheet by simultaneously pursuing the highest and best uses for our capital. I am proud of our ARLP’s performance in 2023 and encouraged by the opportunities in front of us as we gear up for what should be another successful year in 2024. That concludes our prepared comments, and I’ll now ask the operator to open the call for questions.

Questions & Answers:

Operator

Thank you.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Operator.

Operator

Thank you. We’ll now be conducting a question-and-answer session. [Operator instructions] Thank you. And our first question will be coming from the line of Nathan Martin with The Benchmark Company.

Please proceed with your questions.

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

Yeah. Thanks, operator. Good morning, Joe. Good morning, Cary.

Thanks for taking my questions.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

I wanted to start with the distribution this quarter. Coverage ratio is 1.8 times, looks like, for the full year ’23, but it did dip to 1.3 times in the fourth quarter. And I know you guys have said you’re OK with the distribution dipping down temporarily, but it seems like keeping it closer to two times, this is where you prefer to be, obviously. But it’d be great to get your thoughts there on the distribution and the coverage.

And I think you mentioned last quarter that your board meeting will be behind you by the time this call came around. So, maybe any takeaways from those conversations as well. Thank you.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, thank you for the question. So, we did finish the year, as you mentioned, with those coverage ratios that are included in our press release. As we look to 2024, as we’ve indicated, you know, we believe ’24 has the potential to be just as good as 2023. You know, there are opportunities as we go looking toward ’25.

We’re also optimistic about our opportunities in ’25. You know, we just talked about, you know, the capital will be coming down substantially in ’25 versus ’24. We believe our operating costs will be lower and primarily because of the efficiency projects we’ve talked about. We believe natural gas should be higher priced in 2025 because of the LNG terminals that are coming online in the back half of 2024 in the United States.

So, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. We’ve signed some long-term contracts that give us some stability through 2028. Yet, at the same time, we do have not as much contracted in ’25 as we have in ’24, where we got over 90%. So, I think as we move through the year, you know, the board will make a decision on a quarter-by-quarter basis as to whether to maintain the distribution at the $0.70 level.

I believe we’re in a position to do so, and that would be my expectation. And the other factor that we’ll have to consider is how does the market react to our continued growth and our continued opportunities that we have in front of us. You know, as I’ve mentioned in the past, we’ve been disappointed that our unit price didn’t track the distribution increase that we gave in 2023. So, it’ll be a quarter-by-quarter decision, but we’re — as Cary mentioned in his prepared remarks, we’re very focused on growing our company, maintaining and growing our cash flow, and returning that to the shareholders, similar to what we’ve been doing over the last 25 years.

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

I appreciate that color there, Joe. Maybe next, just a bit of a multipronged question. You know, you just mentioned some of the contracts you guys did. It looks like an additional 12 million tons over that 2024 to 2028 period.

First, is it possible to get a breakdown of how those tons were spread throughout that time period, and then maybe, you know, some more color on what the pricing look like? And then second, for this year specifically in ’24, you know, what portion of those committed tons are fixed price and what portion are open to market pricing still at this point? I would assume the domestic tons are largely fixed, but are your export tons tied to an index, you know, like API2 or something, where you could have some volatility? Are there any floors or ceilings in those contracts maybe like some of your peers have had?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, as far as the actual volume beyond 2024, I’m not — I don’t have those numbers right now. I don’t know if you’ve got those, Cary. But back to the pricing, the pricing in ’24 of our contract book is comparable to what our 2023 average revenues are. Domestic contracts do have escalators in them.

Some are fixed. Some are actually indices. They’re — you know, our export volumes, I believe, this just goes through 2024. I don’t think we have any in the out years, and those are fixed prices.

Some of them do have index — they do tie to indices. Specifically, our metallurgical contracts are tied to some indices that will fluctuate based on what the market is. What did I miss from your questions?

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I think, Nate, just in a follow-up in terms of the out years, I think if you go back and look at where we were guiding last quarter, you know, just in terms of commitments, if you look in the out years of those 12 million tons, they do go, you know, as we mentioned, out to 2028. Most of those volumes that go out for that period of time are in the 1.5 million ton range once you get beyond the 2024 period. So, if you look at 2025 to 2028, you know, that would give you an indication of the level of contracts.

Some of them will scale up and scale down. But, you know, they may be 2 million one year and then kind of scale down to, you know, closer to 1.25 million as you get toward the tail end of it. But generally speaking, it’s, you know, fairly significant volume, you know, as you go over that 2025 through 2028 time period.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

And the message is, you know, they understand that they need to start layering in some volume, and they’re basically giving us confidence that those plants are needed, not only through the ’28 time period, but beyond. So, you know, we are hearing from our customers that the expectations are that with grid reliability, with the growth in electrification, that the existing fleet of coal plants need to stay open longer. And, you know, we will see that play out. I mean, you know, the Biden administration, you know, continues to suggest that they don’t need to keep the plants open, whereas Republican candidates have all suggested that we do.

So, you know, I think that we believe that the law of physics is going to require and the growth in demand that these plants will stay open and that our — you know, we’re very confident that our production volumes will be sustained for the next five to six to seven years.

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

That’s very helpful, guys. Maybe just to kind of wrap that up, I mean, really, I guess my questions kind of revolve around maybe what gets you to the low or the high end of your full year ’24 price per ton guidance. And you’ve got 32.5 million tons, it looks like, committed and priced. Maybe what’s the assumption there and API2 price if that’s what your export volumes are tied to? And we’ve seen some pressure there, obviously.

You mentioned that domestic contracts where you’re pricing those have been above the spot rates. So, that’s a positive. Just trying to get a sense of maybe what gets you to the low or high end of that range. Thank you.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, the whole range is going to be dependent on the export market. So, we’ve seen the export pricing on the indexes drop probably $10 or $12 in the last month. We don’t believe that’s sustainable. We believe that the pricing will get back in the API2 level that’s greater than $110 to $120 range because we believe that that’s what the world supply will demand for that — you know, for those products.

We do believe that demand is stable. However, the pricing right now is a little soft. And so, the whole swinging will be how we place those export tons throughout 2024. That will be the determining factor as to the ranges that you spoke to.

But when you look at the total compared to our UI position, it doesn’t move the needle that much because we have so little tons that are needed to be placed, you know, for 2024.

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

Great. I appreciate those comments, guys. I’ll pass it along to the next caller. Thanks for your time and best of luck here in ’24.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question is from the line of Mark Reichman with Noble Capital Markets. Please proceed with your questions.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

Thank you and good morning.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

So, going into the fourth quarter, you know, the delta between what was committed and priced in 2023 and the — your guidance, that was kind of expected to be kind of what happened in the export market. So, the tons sold came in kind of at the low end compared to, you know, the guidance. So, when do you expect that delta between committed and priced and what was sold, you know, to carry over into 2024? Will that mainly be in the first quarter or — and I assume that’s kind of already kind of baked into the 2024 guidance.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yes, that’s right. That’s right, Mark. We would expect those tonnages to roll over into the first quarter, and it is baked into the guidance that we provided.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

OK. And then, you know, during the last conference call, you didn’t expect much in the way of fourth quarter outside coal purchases, but sequentially, the number increased over 20 million from 11.5 million. So, did the adverse conditions at Mettiki, did those just extend beyond your expectations, and do you think we’re done with the outside coal purchases?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, yeah. So, we — in the last earnings call, we felt like the longwall would be up and running by the end of November, and it was actually delayed until the end of December. So, we did have some shipments that we needed to buy, some coal that we thought we would be able to produce that we came up a little short. And we may have to actually buy some in the first quarter.

The longwall did come up the last week of December. It is operating as expected. But depending on whether the timing of shipments is possible, we may have some purchases in the first quarter. I don’t believe we are anticipating anything beyond that.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

OK. That was — at least when I compared it to what our estimates look like, I think we were at the low end, but that was kind of a difference. And then just lastly, you know, I know it’s too early to talk about revenues, but this agreement between Infinitum and Matrix, rather than, you know, revenue numbers, can you just kind of maybe highlight the economics of becoming a global distributor for Infinitum and are there any shared arrangements on the development of new mining products? So, I mean, will they just get the margin, you know, from the sale of Infinitum’s items, projects, products or are there some other like, you know, when they go in and install, you know, a project for a mining customer, are there other sources of revenue? What is kind of the revenue substack or revenue stack look like for Matrix when they enter an arrangement like that with Infinitum?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Well, the initial project that we’re working on, you know, they basically are making equipment that, effectively, we’re going to be testing in our operations in 2024. That’ll start, I believe, in the second quarter of this year. Cary, do you have those more specifics? And then that will roll in, and then we will start to hoping — hopefully be marketing those in 2025.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right, Joe. You know, our — the products, you know, kind of goes back to — similar to what we did with IntelliZone where we’re providing proof of concept for these underground. And so, we have been in discussions with the regulatory agencies here, you know, for underground mining and do anticipate those going underground here.

Certainly, by the second quarter, you know, we’re hoping to push it, you know, even a little bit quicker than that.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

And we’ve got another motor technology that we’re also working on that would also need MSHA approval. And that’s to — we would think that that would be manufactured and then sold into 2025. You know, our initial focus will be domestically, but then it, too, would be rolling out similar to our proximity device in IntelliZone that is currently being marketed in South Africa and Australia.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

OK. Well, that’s very helpful [Inaudible]

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, I think that when we look at — to try to give you some idea. So, I think we’ve got invested around $67 million in Infinitum, and we believe that the cash flow that we’ll receive just from these two announcements are going to give us an attractive double-digit return just on that investment as a byproduct of that relationship. And that doesn’t even anticipate what we would get on that actual investment in Infinitum. So, that sort of gives you an idea of the scale of the opportunity just from this one or these two products that we are talking — or ready to design, build, and sell into the marketplace.

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

Well, that’s really helpful, and I appreciate that. I really didn’t have too many questions on the guidance. I thought that was pretty straightforward and looked pretty good. So, thank you very much.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Mark.

Operator

Our next question is from the line of David Marsh with Singular Research. Please proceed with your questions.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Hi, guys. Thank you for taking the questions. Appreciate it. And congrats on a really great year.

Just as we start to look forward into ’24, you know, I guess some of my questions kind of echo a little bit some of the questions previously. I mean, particularly, in Appalachia, it looks like, you know, you guys had some margin compression. Was that in part or largely due to your production shortfall there and in your need to purchase, you know, other externally produced coal?

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I mean, that’s right, David. I mean that there was margin compression in Appalachia, you know, and primarily driven by the items that we talked about with the production issues, particularly in the back half of the year, that we experienced within the region.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, essentially, we had — a longwall at Mettiki didn’t operate the second half of the year. So, you know, that now is operating, so you’re going to see us go — you know, that volume to come back into the market. At MC, we went from four units to three units starting, I believe, in September or October. So, we’re planning to operate at three units at MC.

Yeah, we do have some new equipment there, so we think that our costs should be relatively stable. Yeah.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

And then —

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

In ’24 there. But —

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

And then, David, as you look into 2024 in terms of the compression that you see on the margins on that side of it, that’s primarily on the top-line-driven as we had some higher-priced contracts that were — that we shipped on in 2023 that expired, and the market environment’s a little bit lower as we look at where we’re contracted in 2024 related to the Appalachia region.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Right. Understood. So, just pulling that thread forward on the Appalachian EBITDA expense per ton, we should naturally expect that to decline from the fourth quarter level, correct? And then what would the trajectory be of that? I mean, do you think you can get back down into the 40s, or is that — are we, you know, living in a 50s kind of world in terms of expense per ton there?

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Go ahead.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

I’d say you’re looking at the 50s, not the 40s. The industry is — you know, experienced inflation, like all others. But — so all of our costs have gone up somewhat just because of inflation. But then you factor in going from four units to three.

Another factor in Appalachia in 2024 is, you know, we’re in the process of moving to the new reserves we bought at Tunnel Ridge. And so, we do have shorter panels in 2024 compared to historic, as well as projected in ’25 forward. So, we’re probably going to have some reduction in volume at Tunnel Ridge that enters into that mix. But yeah, you’re looking at, you know, probably mid-50s in Appalachia for the year would be the estimate right now, somewhere in that, which is what we’ve sort of guided to, the $54.25 to $57.25.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Yeah. And I mean, are we going to — I’m just trying to get an understanding of trajectory on it. Will it start still kind of closer to the Q4 level and gradually decline throughout the year or is it going to just — you know, is there going to be a pop down and then a flat kind of throughout the year?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Right now, our quarter — our first quarter appears to — it looks like it’ll be in the low end of the range, if not lower than the range. So, if we can get the volume out of Mettiki that we’re anticipating, the first quarter should be a good quarter. And then when you look at the trajectory beyond 2024 into ’25, we should start seeing the benefits of us getting into the new reserves at Tunnel Ridge. So, we should see some decline in the 2025 time period, depending on inflation, of course.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Got it.

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

I mean, inflation could take some of that away.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. Well, that’s excellent.

That’s very, very helpful. And then just lastly for me, you know, in terms of — you know, as you look at your cash flow and your opportunity set with that cash flow, could you just kind of rank it in terms of priorities, you know, expansion capex into like the new lines of business that you’ve been pursuing versus debt reduction and a potential increase to the distribution?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, I think our priority, as Cary mentioned, will be pay down the debt. We will be paying down the senior notes in ’24 and potentially in the first quarter of next year. However, he’s also looking at financing — or refinancing or entering into some facilities that will give us capacity to grow. You know, some of them will be funded.

But most — you know, hopefully, some of them will be unfunded and be revolver-type arrangements. So then, you know, as far as growth, we’ve talked about oil and gas. You know, we’ll continue to invest there. We will still have opportunities to invest in other items.

You know, there’s nothing on the horizon that I can give you any specifics on how we would allocate that capital, but we are continuing to look at multiple areas of investment. And so, we’ve got a capital allocation process that will evaluate investments in future cash flow growth, which we do put as a priority. And then alternatively, we will look at, you know, whether there are other uses for that capital. I mean, I think that distributions continue to be high on our priority list.

So, it’s my goal that, you know, distributions will be consistent. But we got to evaluate, you know, the future as — you know, on a quarter-by-quarter basis, as we talked about. So, that will include not only just, you know, the future markets, but just as important, the opportunities in front of us to make investments.

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Got it. Thank you very much. That’s all I have.

Operator

Our next question is from the line of Dave Storms with Stonegate Capital. Please proceed with your questions.

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

Good morning.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Hello. Good morning.

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

Good morning. Just a couple of quick ones for me. Curious as to how you’re thinking about the labor outlook now that we’re kind of through the holidays and, you know, maybe labor might start picking up. I know you mentioned that you might be sticking with the three units at Mettiki, I believe it was.

But, you know, as some of these capital improvement projects is expected to be completed this year, is that going to require, you know, increased hiring?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So, we have seen an improvement in our retention and our availability of labor, specifically in Illinois Basin as an example. So, we do have the Henderson County mine that we are developing that should become operational — well, it is operational as we’re ramping, but it should get to where we will be increasing staffing at that mine by the end of 2024 or during 2024. As that ramps up, we expect that that plant — or that mine will be — you know, will have more production starting in ’25. Effectively, what we’re doing at River View is we’re basically having two portals instead of one, and that second portal will be at Henderson County.

So, there will be some hiring there. There’s still — there’s a need of some hiring at our mines, just back to normal attrition, not what we’ve been experiencing in the last two or three years, but what we would consider to be normal. So, I think on a labor front, we’re in a better position than we have been historically. At MC Mining, you know, we still see challenges, so we’re currently not anticipating increasing that mine back to four units.

It’s possible, but that’s the one area that we’re continuing to see challenges of being able to attract sufficient numbers to commit to bringing back that unit. But I think everywhere else, and we’ve been encouraged by the recent activity, people wanting to come work for us.

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

Very helpful. Thank you. And then just on the inventory front, how comfortable are you with your current inventory levels? Are you expecting to continue to burn those off? I know they were impacted by that temporary outage. Now that hopefully things are starting to normalize, would you expect your inventory levels to continue to track down slightly?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

I think, you know, our goal is to maintain, you know, more than likely, just as a working inventory level, given the amount of tons we’re putting in the export market. It’s right at a million tons a month. But it will fluctuate based on timing of vessels because, you know, the vessels, you know, take — you know, it may be on the 30th, it may be on the 2nd, and so there could be 60,000 to 100,000 tons right there that could put us in a position that we could be a little higher than that. But our goal would be to maintain inventory right at that million-ton-a-month level.

Right now, I think it’s around 1.3 million, something of that nature. But — so it’s going to be in that swing area, I would say.

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

Understood. And then last one for me, kind of on a macro level. I thought I saw that LNG export terminal constructions have been paused in the U.S. Do you anticipate that if this becomes a prolonged pause that it will increase demand for international coal as, you know, consumers need to switch from LNG to coal, or is this not something we should really have on our radar at this point?

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

The pause is not in construction, it’s on new permits. It may be permits would be under — currently under regulatory review. But as far as the terminals that are under construction, they’re continuing to be completed. And the permits that have been issued but are not under construction, it’s our understanding heading that those, too, are allowed to proceed.

So, we don’t anticipate any interruption in the demand and/or supply for LNG, you know, until the end of the decade, you know, as a result of these permits. So, we believe that these permits — these plants that have been permitted will, in fact, be developed and that the demand for LNG will continue to be strong for, you know, the remaining decade.

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

That’s very helpful. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. At this time, this concludes our question-and-answer session, and I’ll hand the call back to Mr. Cary Marshall for closing remarks.

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, operator. And to everyone on the call, we appreciate your time this morning and also your continued support and interest in Alliance. Our next call to discuss our first quarter 2024 financial and operating results is currently expected to occur in April, and we hope everyone will join us again at that time. This concludes our call for the day.

Thank you.

Operator

[Operator signoff]

Duration: 0 minutes

Call participants:

Cary MarshallSenior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Joe CraftChairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Nate MartinThe Benchmark Company — Analyst

Mark ReichmanNoble Capital Markets — Analyst

David MarshSingular Research — Analys

Dave StormsStonegate Capital Partners — Analyst

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