"I don't think it's inevitable," said Lindsay Taylor with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham, Wash. group working against a proposed 48-million-ton coal port in nearby Cherry Point.
"Coal is what the American economy was built on, but what we foresee is a future without coal," she said.
The industry faces another challenge from coal-producing countries such as Australia, which has also tapped into the new demand from Asia.
Over the last two years, flooding and other problems hampered Australia's coal exports and provided an opening for U.S. companies. As Australia works past those problems, analysts say it's uncertain how much room will be left for American competitors.
"High demand by China has rippled through the markets. It's really an issue of how long this demand is going to last," said Bill Watson, an analyst with the Energy Information Administration. "The prices have been very high, so anybody who can mine and ship coal certainly has a lot of incentive to do that."
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