Inevitably, the future of the global coal industry hinges upon change. From the Kyoto Protocol to the clear direction of the Obama administration, the tide of world opinion against the status quo for coal consumption has reached a critical mass.

With a timely nod from the Department of Energy, I believe that experiments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies under the corporate consortium known as the FutureGen Alliance will advance to construction. With more than $1 billion in federal funding available from the Obama stimulus plan, this week's announcement that the project has passed environmental regulatory hurdles further bolsters the project's likelihood of proceeding.

Obama may be tough on coal, but with so many titans of global coal production on board, and a project that fits neatly into the cap-and-trade framework, FutureGen looks like a done deal to this Fool. The alliance consists of my top two picks in the industry -- Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU) and CONSOL Energy (NYSE:CNX) -- plus noteworthy foreign names such as BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP), Rio Tinto (NYSE:RTP), and Anglo American (NASDAQ:AAUK).

At stake is the construction of an experimental electric generation plant that captures emissions from the burning of coal, shoving massive quantities of CO2 underground instead of into the atmosphere. In a recent roundtable discussion on Cap & Trade, I questioned the wisdom of stuffing all this carbon underground. I'd much rather see more effort directed to building out a viable nationwide wind- and solar-powered energy infrastructure.

In a curious development, two members of the alliance withdrew their membership last month. These were two of only three electric utility companies in the mix: American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) and Southern (NYSE:SO). American Electric in particular decided its share of development costs would be better spent furthering its experimental Mountaineer plant already under construction in West Virginia.

If a project to generate electricity is undertaken primarily by a group of coal miners, are we seeing the beginnings of a structural shift in the industry? In order to maintain demand for their product, will coal miners morph into electric utilities over time? Among the myriad implications of a full-fledged cap-and-trade system, that certainly seems like a possibility. In such a scenario, with clean coal initiatives already under way in China, Australia, and the U.S., Peabody Coal stands out as a clear contender for continued market dominance.

Further clean-burning Foolishness:

The "Coal" tag within the Motley Fool CAPS community lists 21 coal companies. Find out what other investors are saying about the stocks you're watching, or share your Foolish thoughts with us. CAPS is free and fun! Southern is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker wishes he could squeeze coal into diamonds. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna.He tweets. He owns shares of Anglo American, BHP Billiton, and Peabody Energy. The Motley Fool scrubs its disclosure policy before releasing it into the atmosphere.