China’s Dark Power


The China Railway High-speed (CRH) train travels at over 300km an hour between Beijing and Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province. This northern province, with roads congested by overloaded lorries en route for cities, was China’s principal coal-producing region for a long time, until it was overtaken by Inner Mongolia. Everything is stained with coal: the sad grey villages, the landscape and the people, whose faces and bodies are blackened from working down the mines. Even the water is black: washing the coal after extraction pollutes rivers and groundwater, making it unsuitable for irrigation or drinking.

The look of the mines has hardly changed for centuries, even though they are being modernised. Huge heaps of coal at the entrances wait to be transported by lorry. Blackboards on the office walls carry the day’s slogans for the work team leaders and reminders of the decisions of the all-powerful State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, currently run by Zhao Tiechui. The number of mining accidents has risen again since 2010, when there were 1,403 accidents and 2,433 deaths, according to official figures (1).

Even though China plans to build more nuclear power stations (2) and hydroelectric dams, coal remains its main source of electricity (3), preferred by business, particularly locally. According to the Beijing Development and Reform Commission, Beijing residents will consume 20m tons of coal a year by 2015, compared to 11m tons in 2010 (when there had already been a rise in use). China is one of the world’s biggest coal producers (reserves are estimated at 118bn tons), with deposits concentrated in the north and northeast, where there are no major problems of extraction. It is cheap to extract, and seen as the best way to provide the energy needed to boost growth. The industry provides a lot of employment, particularly in rural areas where there is always high demand for jobs.

Over the past decade China has diversified its supply of coal, thanks to its new privileged relationships with emerging economies such as coal-rich South Africa and Colombia, and it is also interested in Australia’s opencast mines. But at present, China gets 60% of its supply from its own mines. According to the state news agency Xinhua, it has around 12,000 mines operating across the country, but there could be twice that number, taking into account clandestine mines.

There have been several ambitious projects to merge the many scattered mines and unify production. In 2006 the National Development and Reform Commission announced a plan to build five or six giant conglomerates, by amalgamating or closing small mines in the main coal-producing provinces. Two of the conglomerates were Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, with 88,000 employees, and Datong Coal Mine Group, listed on the Shanghai stock exchange. In 2011 China officially had 24 large state-run mining groups, formed by mergers between mining companies and the closure of small, mainly private, pits, where most accidents took place. The number of mines in China went from 87,000 in 1995 to 26,000 in 2005 and 12,000 in 2010.

’Safety is our heavenly principle’

A plan to open a huge mine in Gansu province, with exploitable reserves estimated at more than 7bn tons, was announced in February 2010. Named Ningzheng, after the district where it is located, it covers an area of 1,100 sq km, and is expected to produce 20m tons of coal a year (4). It is already the largest coalmine in the world.

These huge projects and mergers are always justified by safety arguments to reassure public opinion. Slogans on the brick walls of the pits at Shanxi or Henan proclaim: “Safety is our heavenly principle” and “Let us celebrate the reform of the mines”. But the conglomerates have not yet proved effective. While the record level of 6,995 deaths in 2009 has not been matched, the rate of accidents has been risen over the last two years, and this has led to public anger. The families of dead miners were compensated for the first time in 2007 after an explosion, each receiving $34,520. Since then compensation has become more common. 

But this has led to local criminal gangs killing miners in fake accidents to get compensation paid by the authorities or pit owners. There have been several scandals in Hebei, Yunnan and Sichuan, where organised gangs, often in league with pit bosses, have killed with impunity, either down the mines or in the makeshift huts where mingong (internal migrant workers) live. In 2003 film director Li Yang told their story in Blind Shaft, a film of the novel The Pit by Liu Quingbang (5). It exposed the rise in crime in this subterranean world, where the law of the strongest prevails, and it won several international awards. In 2010 Chinese media exposed the story of 62 mentally handicapped people who had been sold by a private care home to work as slaves in the mines of Sichuan. The case led to a dramatic trial.

Public anger has forced the authorities to take a tougher stance. After an explosion that killed 35 in Guangxi in September 2010, prime minister Wen Jiabao ordered mine owners to go underground to share the risks faced by their employees, and make sure safety regulations were respected.

Safer extraction

As a less spectacular, but more effective, measure the government wants to make coal extraction safer by capturing methane, the gas responsible for most lethal explosions. According to Huang Shengchu, director of the China Coal Information Institute, China has decided to allot $275m every year to subsidise the degassing of mines, before coal extraction. The captured methane is transported to power stations where it is purified so it can be used as a fuel. There have been a few successful experiments, such as at Jincheng, in Shanxi province, where a large methane power plant attached to a mine has been operating since 2008.

The search for technological solutions to the pollution caused by intensive coal use is not new. For several years, environmental campaigners have been blacklisting power stations that burn pulverised coal. China has become the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, but to shake off its sulphur-spewing image, the authorities are looking at “clean coal” technology to curb atmospheric pollution. China has mastered supercritical combustion, where vapour under high pressure gives the highest energy output and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions. China is building one of these power stations every month, at 30% less than the cost of a conventional power station in the US.

Although China’s leaders have signed the Kyoto Protocol, they believe they have the right to the same historic privileges the industrialised countries had to develop their economies, even if this does lead to a rise in CO2 emissions. According to Greenpeace, greenhouse gas emissions could double by 2030, reaching 3bn or 4bn tons a year (6). Greenpeace says that, for every ton of coal produced, 2.5 tons of water are polluted, hence the increased scarcity of this resource: 25% of China’s wastewater comes from the coal washing process, which discharges huge quantities of toxic metals. This pollution has dramatic health effects: according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 190 million people suffer from illnesses linked to contaminated water, and 30,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by this pollution (7).

China is looking at ways to diversify its supply of energy, including solar. In its 12th Five Year Plan (2012-16) the government has set the objective of reducing carbon intensity (8) by 17% in five years. The need is urgent, as Chinese coal is helping to suffocate the planet.  

Leave a comment