Ironically, the surge in U.S. shale gas production has weakened domestic coal demand and prices, driving increases in coal use abroad.
"The decline of the fuel in the U.S. has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme," said the British newspaper The Guardian.
In China, infrastructure problems have combined with surging demand to propel imports despite efforts to boost efficiency and cleaner fuels.
Although the increase China's coal output accounted for more than three-fourths of global growth in 2011, the country also surpassed Japan as the world's biggest importer, the IEA said in its Medium-Term Coal Market Report.
China is projected to burn over half the world's coal starting in 2014. Even in case of an economic slowdown, China's coal use is expected to grow by 2 percent annually through 2017.
Much of the demand has come from heavy industries like iron and steel, which raised production nearly fivefold while tripling coal use between 2000 and 2010, the report said.
China's huge consumption and transport limitations seem to assure that imports will continue.
The country is largely dependent on railroads to move coal from production bases in the north and west to consuming centers in the south and east.
Coal accounts for more than half of China's rail tonnage, but bottlenecks in the system have forced more coal onto waterways and crowded roads, the IEA said.
Under the five-year plan, rail transport of coal is expected to reach 2.6 billion tons by 2015. Some 60 percent of the traffic would come from Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces and Inner Mongolia to coastal centers, the northeast and the south.
Despite increases in rail and domestic transport to coastal ports, imports are still expected for eastern and southern provinces including Jilin, Zhejiang and Guangdong, the report indicated.
Wang Zhanjun, head of the coal association, said at an industry meeting in Shanxi on Dec. 22 that imports are set to continue at "high levels" in 2013, Xinhua reported.