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“Despite projections of robust short- and long-term global demand for more thermal coal, U.S. coal producers are challenged to find their permanent niche in the global marketplace,” he said. “Price signals today do not present the same robust profit scenarios of even six months ago. Port projects and the mining sector that underwrites them were once filled with opportunity and optimism, but now face sobering uncertainty.”

But Mr. Gue insists that the future is bright for coal exports once obstacles are cleared away. He also expects coal to remain the biggest source of power in the U.S. generation mix for another couple of decades, despite the mounting environmental and regulatory hurdles that utilities and mining companies face.

“Certainly, the Obama White House and the EPA anti-coal evangelists are hoisting new regulations that are aimed at reducing domestic coal usage. But many utilities are burning natural gas as a base load fuel instead of coal simply because natural gas is now dirt-cheap in the U.S.”

As U.S. power companies retire aging coal plants, the ones left up and running will become more important than ever as a steady source of reliable power, Mr. Gue said. “Rising U.S. electricity demand should require the remaining coal-fired plants to operate at a higher utilization rate, offsetting the effect of lost capacity.”

The National Center For Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, sees a “long goodbye” for coal in U.S. power generation as natural gas has become the most cost-effective fuel, thanks to hydraulic fracturing techniques that have made gas abundant and cheap. But he cautioned against overreliance on gas, where prices and supplies historically have been volatile.

“While the shale gas revolution is a good development, coal should not be abandoned or overregulated given its abundance and stable, inexpensive price,” said center analyst H. Sterling Burnett.