DECKER, MT -- From the time coal is blasted from strip mines in Montana and Wyoming to the point where it reaches customers in Asia, its price can get marked up by five times or more.
It's a lucrative emerging market for an industry facing domestic declines.
But as the federal government investigates whether companies are bilking the treasury by paying royalties based on a far lower coal price, one of the industry's main players, Cloud Peak Energy, is defending the practice.
Company executives acknowledge they sell coal for more money in Asia. But they spend much more, too, in shipping and handling costs.
Members of Congress warn the government could lose many millions of dollars annually if royalties are unfairly calculated. U.S. coal exports hit a record 125 million tons last year.