"China and India imports have risen year-to-date and are on a pace to increase 15 percent this year to new record levels as the trends to urbanize, industrialize and electrify continue," Boyce said in a conference call with analysts on July 23.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. offers a less buoyant outlook.
"We believe that thermal coal's current position atop the fuel mix for global power generation will be gradually eroded," Christian Lelong, an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Australia, said in a report on July 24. "Most thermal coal growth projects will struggle to earn a positive return."
Coal is now used to generate 40 percent of the world's electricity, and its use has grown more than 50 percent in the past decade, according to EIA. The U.S. is the world's second- largest producer of coal, after China, followed by India, Australia and Indonesia. China is the world's top importer of coal as well, followed by Japan, according to the World Coal Association.
According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, 1,200 coal-fired plants are being proposed globally, with more than three-quarters of those planned for India and China alone. If all are built, which WRI says is unlikely, that would add more than 80 percent to existing capacity.
China can finance its projects on its own, and India has only relied on export financing in a few cases. As a result, the recent changes are likely to impact other nations in Africa and Asia, which don't have the same access to credit. Each group said in some instances it would still finance coal, and activists are worried about those exceptions.
"The implementation of all three of those initiatives is yet to be fleshed out," Doug Norlen, the policy director of Pacific Environment, which is fighting these kinds of fossil- fuel projects, said in an interview. "These will be huge steps, if properly implemented."
That implementation is still an open question.
For example, as part of Obama's climate action plan released on June 25, the U.S. pledged to end support of foreign coal-fired power plants, unless they are in the poorest nations or have expensive carbon-capture technology. The U.S. Export- Import Bank is only now developing the procedures to implement that policy, and its board will consider those changes in the coming weeks. The lender shot down a bid to finance a coal plant in Vietnam, its only pending application for coal, just three weeks after Obama's announcement.
Norlen's group and other environmentalists filed a lawsuit against the Export-Import Bank last week to try to block its financing of coal exports. That support is separate from the policy change Obama announced.
The European Investment Bank set an emission performance standard that would prevent lending to new coal-fired plants unless they also burn biomass. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is also under pressure to limit support.
Even after the World Bank said it would help nations transition from coal to natural gas or renewables, it's still considering support for a coal project in Kosovo.
There's also the possibility that other lenders, especially export-credit agencies from Japan or China, could step in and replace the World Bank, U.S. and Europe. Japan's Bank for International Cooperation, its export financing body, has provided more than $10 billion in financing for overseas coal projects, more than any other individual nation, according to the WRI report.
And now China, which wants to export coal-plant technology, may ramp up support as well, said Ailun Yang, the author of the WRI report.
"It is a real concern" that "some of the funding gap for coal-fired plants would simply be filled by the Chinese banks," she said.