With anger over the country’s smoggy skies rising, China has enthusiastically embraced coal gasification regardless of rising CO2 emissions
Amid the rolling grasslands of northern China, a gleaming new industrial complex offers a beguiling vision for the nation’s leaders. Here, on a sandy plain among scattered flocks of sheep, a flagship plant promises to use China’s surplus coal while simultaneously delivering cleaner skies over its crowded eastern cities.
Modeled on a similar and much older plant in North Dakota, the Hexigten complex in China’s Inner Mongolia transforms coal into methane by treating it with heat, steam and oxygen. It then pipes the supposedly cleaner gas to Beijing to heat and power the capital’s homes.
In the past two years, with anger over the country’s smoggy skies rising and demand for coal declining, China has enthusiastically embraced coal gasification. It has proposed to build more than 50 plants like this in its sparsely populated north and west and to create by far the largest synthetic natural gas (SNG) industry in the world.
Although the enthusiasm has since waned somewhat — mainly over questions about the industry’s economic viability — coal gasification still has powerful backers. But a visit to the semi-arid grasslands of the Asian steppe soon clouds the rosy vision they espouse.
Here, even before the factory’s twin smokestacks come into view, the stench of sulfur poisons the air, leaving humans and animals gasping for breath for miles around. Likewise, underground water supplies are receding, while wastewater pools threaten to leach dangerous heavy metals into the soil, according to Greenpeace research.
Protests by local herders have reportedly been suppressed, and a Washington Post reporting team was harassed by police and security officials on a recent trip.
Not only is this industry exporting pollution from the politically powerful capital city to the politically marginalized grasslands and deserts of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, but it also has a potentially powerful impact on the global climate.
The entire process of turning coal into gas, and then burning that gas somewhere else, produces significantly more greenhouse gases than just burning the coal in the first place. The industry is also extremely water-intensive, putting pressure on water supplies in some of China’s most arid regions.
“If they keep going with coal-to-gas, they are going to produce so much greenhouse gas that they won’t reach their targets,” said Chi-Jen Yang, a research scientist at Duke University’s Center on Global Change, adding that this could lock China into a high-carbon path of development for decades to come.
In effect, he said, China has been trying to address short-term, local problems — smog and a recession in the coal industry — by exacerbating the long-term global problem of climate change.