WASHINGTON — Coal, the former king of American energy, is making a comeback after being left for dead in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas.
For years, coal has lost market share as the American fracking boom created a flood of cheap and abundant natural gas. But natural gas prices have edged upward, and the frigid winter created unprecedented energy demands. Power plants have increasingly turned to coal as the solution.
There's serious doubt whether the resurgence in coal can last in America, with stricter environmental rules coming. And the rising demand has failed to help revive the rapidly declining coal industry in Eastern Kentucky.
But the global outlook for coal is bright, and U.S. coal producers hope to take advantage by increasing exports to other countries hungry for cheap energy. The International Energy Agency says coal will be the No. 1 fuel for meeting the worldwide increase in energy demand.
"Like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come," IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said in the agency's most recent coal market report. "Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure, and coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems."
Van der Hoeven also said, though, that she wanted to emphasize that coal burning in its current form is "simply unsustainable" for the world's climate.
In a blow to President Barack Obama's pledge to be a leader in the fight against global warming, American carbon dioxide emissions rose an estimated 2 percent last year — after falling by 12 percent over the previous seven years. The federal Energy Information Administration attributes the rise in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions largely to the country using more coal than it used to.
Coal burning increased in the United States nearly 4 percent last year, and this year it should see an even bigger spike, according to the Energy Information Administration.
"There is a resurgence, and it is quite a strong one," said James Stevenson, the director of North American coal analysis for the global energy consulting firm IHS.
Coal's renewed popularity is a result of natural gas prices more than doubling over the past two years in response to a tighter market.
Those prices allow cheap coal to compete. The use of natural gas for power generation dropped in 2013 for the first time in five years as a result.
The Arctic blasts of the past winter also pushed power plants to turn to coal to meet the nation's record-setting heating requirements.
"The main benefactor of this extreme cold and extreme low in natural gas inventory is coal," said Bob Yu, an analyst for Bentek Energy.
Coal is set for more growth this year because of the price of natural gas and the ramp-up of coal generation, according to Yu and other analysts.
Coal from Western Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana is on the rise, with 50 percent more production than a decade ago, according to the energy pricing and information service Platts. Coal from Montana and Wyoming also is making more inroads in the market.
But the hard times continue in the economically depressed Central Appalachian coal field, which includes the century-old industry in Eastern Kentucky. Mines have closed, and thousands of people have lost jobs. Coal from that region remains at a serious disadvantage because of its high mining costs. Platts' figures show that Central Appalachian coal production dropped nearly 40 percent in the past decade.
"Much of the coal from the region is mined from increasingly smaller seams, sometimes only a few feet thick, in mostly deep underground mines," said Andrew Moore, a Platts editor who tracks the coal industry.
The rest of the U.S. coal basins could run into problems soon as well, with federal mercury and air toxics standards scheduled to begin in 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency also is working on greenhouse gas emission rules that are squarely aimed at coal.
IHS analyst Stevenson is skeptical that coal's comeback in America can last, and he expects a slow decline in U.S. consumption to take hold.
Other nations will hunger for American coal, though. Coal use has grown in Europe, where natural gas prices are far higher than in the United States.
The United States is exporting nearly twice as much coal as it did four years ago, with big costumers in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany.
Stevenson said there also is potential for growth in U.S. coal in South Korea, with its fast-growing economy, and in Japan, which wants to move away from nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 leak of radioactive material from Fukushima. He expects coal terminals to be built in the Pacific Northwest to ship coal mined from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to Asia.