With consolidation in the coal industry approaching a frenzied clip, International Coal Group (NYSE: ICO) is looking more delectable each day as a potential takeover target. If one were to strip away the overburden of recent operational challenges, I believe an underlying seam of high quality coal reserves remains the ultimate prize for Fools to pine for.

The miner trudged through the same increased regulatory scrutiny that stymied Appalachian production at large during 2010. Combined with a snail's-pace recovery in utility demand as stockpiles remain elevated, regulatory oversight contributed to a 4% reduction in total 2010 production from the Central Appalachian basin.

Late in the fourth quarter, weather-related disruptions to rail shipments carried by eastern coal-hauling specialists like Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) took a $5 million bite out of ICO's EBITDA. Still, the company managed a quarterly profit of $9.6 million and delivered a 21% expansion in per-ton margin on the strength of an outlandish 64% year-over-year surge in the volume of metallurgical coal shipped. Recent takeover target Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE), by contrast, suffered a $70.1 million loss to close a decidedly painful year from an operations standpoint.

As met coal giants like Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) have rendered crystal clear, the world is entering a multi-year supercycle for coal, with the steelmaking variety leading the bullish charge.

Looking forward, I see a company digging toward 5.5 million tons of annual met coal production by 2014 -- once the Tygart Valley #1 mine achieves full production. On the way there, ICO sees met volumes reaching 3.1 million to 3.5 million tons during 2011, with about 3.2 million tons of the following year's production remaining unpriced and exposed to pricing upside. I like what I'm seeing, and I suspect ICO's peers may be similarly impressed.

Perhaps the larger question is not whether a rival would like to own International Coal, but rather which miner may be in a position to make the move. Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) has just played its hand with the highly anticipated Massey acquisition, and is unlikely to play again this year. Walter Energy pounced recently as well. Peabody Energy already unloaded its Appalachian operations with its spin-off of Patriot Coal (NYSE: PCX) years ago, and in any event the company remains resolutely focused upon expansion abroad.

With a market cap above $2.3 billion, Patriot itself may now possess the market heft to consider a move for ICO, and such a pairing could complement Patriot's pre-existing met coal growth spurt nicely. Patriot anticipates between 8 million and 8.4 million tons of met production for 2011, for an expansion of 16% to 22% over 2010 output.

Meanwhile, bigger fish Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) is reported to have pondered a bid for Massey before Alpha made its move, and ICO's assets would render that western-heavy operator a true behemoth in all of the major domestic coal basins.

I consider International Coal Group among the more compelling takeover targets remaining in the industry and view both Arch Coal and Patriot Coal as the best-positioned players to ponder such a move. As always, however, I am eager to compare notes with my fellow Fools and gauge the community's perspective on the matter. Please take a moment to make your own coal selections within your Motley Fool CAPS portfolio, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.