But Chinese economic growth, which averaged 10 percent for the 10 years ended in 2012, is expected to slow to 5 percent to 8 percent over the next decade. At the same time, the Chinese economy is expected to require less energy to grow, and other forms of generation such as nuclear, hydro-electric and renewables are elbowing into coal's turf. And government officials are responding to public outcry over China's notoriously unhealthy air. Last week Chinese authorities announced they would ban new coal fired power plants from three important industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
"All industrialized societies eventually decide that, while cheap sneakers are nice, the environmental damage caused by uncontrolled industrial activity is no longer tolerable," Bernstein analysts wrote.
If these new predictions come to pass, it would spell more lean times for coal miners in major coal exporting countries such as the U.S., Australia and Indonesia. At the same time, the shift would be give a major boost to efforts to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and pollutants such as mercury and sulfur dioxide.
Outfitting coal plants with scrubbers and other pollution-trapping equipment makes coal-fired power much more expensive and makes other technologies, including renewable power, comparably less expensive.
"The economics, finally, are at our backs," says Bruce Nilles, who directs the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
To the coal industry, this is simply a lull that plagues commodity markets every few years. A global oversupply of coal that developed last year pushed prices dramatically lower and forced companies to cut back. That glut is now being burned through, the industry says.
Even if economic growth in places like China and India isn't quite what it was over the last decade, it will still remain strong enough to keep global demand rising for many years, some analysts and industry executives say.
"Coal has several decades of long-term growth ahead of it," says Vic Svec, investor relations chief at Peabody Energy.
Peabody, which is the world's largest investor-owned coal producer, predicts that between 2012 and 2017 the world will need an additional 1.3 billion tons of coal per year — one-third more than the entire U.S. consumes in a year.
"Maybe today (Asia) doesn't need our coal because there is over-supply and lower prices, but that will change," says Michael Dudas, a coal company analyst at Stern Agee.
But a growing number of experts are beginning to reconsider the long-held assumption that the developing world will consume ever more coal just the way the developed world once did.
"The era of wanton Chinese coal demand growth is approaching an end," wrote Citibank analyst Anthony Yuen.
Jonathan Fahey can be reached at http://twitter.com/JonathanFahey .
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