Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. has increased its stake in Appalachian natural gas with the $126 million acquisition of its French partner's 50% interest in a Marcellus Shale joint venture in southwest Pennsylvania.

Through Alpha subsidiary Pennsylvania Services Corp. (PSC) the acquisition makes the company the sole owner and operator of the JV's 25,000 net acres in Greene County, PA. Alpha's former partner in the JV, EDF Trading Resources LLC, sold its interest after its parent company EDF Group -- one of Europe's largest electricity producers -- made the decision to exit the North American upstream market.

The partnership was formed in May 2013 with 12,000 net acres, which has since more than doubled. Alpha, which has Appalachian coal mining operations that stretch from Pennsylvania to Virginia, has struggled with debt and announced hundreds of layoffs as coal prices remain low on weak demand. It is one of the nation's largest publicly traded coal producers.

The company said Wednesday after announcing the acquisition that it intends to put the acreage to work soon, with plans for drilling to begin at the first pad in the next 30 days or so. Alpha Executive Vice President Brian Sullivan said the company expects to complete four wells in the area by the first quarter of next year.

Alpha is no stranger to gas holdings in the region. Last year, it sold its 50% stake in a Marcellus JV with Rice Energy Inc. in exchange for $200 million in common stock when Rice went public and $100 million in cash (see Shale Daily, Jan. 31, 2014). Sullivan said Alpha's current leasehold position in Greene County also includes two constructed well pads with 14 drilling permits and an inventory of more than 50 drilling locations.