The biggest casualty of the shale boom in the U.S. has been the coal industry, as low natural gas prices prompted utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. However, at the same time, U.S. coal exports have been robust over the last three years. Coal exports are expected to fall this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). One of the reasons cited by the EIA for the decline is weakness in Europe, the largest regional importer of U.S. coal. But, U.S. coal exports could in fact get a boost from the European Union (EU) this year as the conflict in Ukraine has raised questions about Europe's energy security. Consol Energy (NYSE:CNX) and Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) stand to benefit from such a development.

U.S. coal exports
In 2012, record low natural gas prices prompted several utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. At one stage in 2012, power generated from natural gas nearly equaled that from coal. Things improved slightly on the domestic front for coal producers in 2013. As per data from the EIA, U.S. coal consumption for 2013 rose 3.9% to 923 million short tons. In 2014, U.S. coal consumption is expected to grow 4.6% to 966 million short tons.

During the tough years, U.S. coal producers managed to offset some of the decline in domestic demand by exporting more. According to the National Mining Association, U.S. coal exports have been above 100 million short tons in each of the last three years. In the preceding five years, U.S. coal exports had averaged 66 million short tons per year. The growth in coal exports was mainly driven by thermal coal, which is used in power plants. In 2014, EIA expects coal exports to dip even though they will remain above 100 million short tons. The EIA expects coal exports to fall from 117.7 million short tons in 2013 to 103 million short tons. The EIA notes that weakness in Europe is one of the reasons why coal exports will decline in 2014. However, thermal coal exports to Europe could in fact get a boost as EU leaders are looking at ways to cut dependence on Russian gas.

The dilemma for the EU
The conflict in Ukraine has forced European leaders to once again think about Europe's reliance on Russian gas. In 2013, Russia accounted for 30% of Europe's gas imports. It must be noted that during the entire Ukrainian crisis so far, Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom (OTC:OGZPY) has not threatened gas supplies to Europe. However, European leaders are right in proactively looking at ways to reduce dependence on Russia for their energy needs. One of the ways being suggested is importing natural gas from the U.S.

But importing gas from the U.S. is not a solution for the near-term. This is because of the U.S. policy of placing restrictions on natural gas exports. Even if the restrictions are removed, the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) in vast quantities in the near-term. Europe also lacks LNG terminals to import gas.

The other solution for the EU is to explore shale gas on the continent. However, that is likely to be controversial, given the opposition to fracking in countries such as France.

Nuclear energy is a near-term solution. Germany, which is one the biggest importer of Russian gas, generated a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy. However, post the Fukushima power plant meltdown, the country has closed eight of its reactors and is scheduled to phase-out the remaining power plants by 2022. Given the stiff opposition to nuclear energy in Germany, it is unlikely that the country will reverse its decision.

Germany is looking to shift to renewable energy as it phases out nuclear energy. But that is an expensive option. Also, the shift will only happen in the long term. In the near term, then, Germany and its partners in Europe have only one option left if they want to cut reliance on Russian gas: That option is coal.

European coal consumption has been rising in the last few years, mainly due to cheap imports from the U.S. Coal consumption in Europe has been also increasing as the penalty for carbon emissions has become very low. In fact, the immediate beneficiary of Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and rely more on renewable energy has been coal. If the EU decides to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, coal is once again likely to be the immediate beneficiary. This is good news for U.S. thermal coal exporters.

Who benefits from coal exports?
Consol Energy is best positioned to capitalize on an increase in thermal coal exports to Europe. While the company has made a shift to natural gas, it has kept its lower cost thermal coal mines. In addition, it owns the Baltimore terminal. The company kept the lower cost mines and the Baltimore terminal to capitalize on export demand. It is now in an excellent position to do so. Consol Energy gets a fee from other companies that use the Baltimore terminal for exports. The terminal has a capacity of 15 million tons, which means Consol can handle a surge in exports easily. Its location on the east coast is another advantage when exporting to Europe.

Alpha Natural Resources could be another beneficiary. In fact Alpha Natural Resources opened an office in London to serve its clients in Europe. Brian Sullivan, Chief Commercial Officer of Alpha Natural Resources, said that the company's intent is to build an export platform for U.S. thermal coal that has long-term potential. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.