A few days ago in Beijing, Donna and I, along with colleagues from Pacific Environment, met with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Greenpeace, and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) to discuss the future of coal in China and how to lessen its impact on the environment.
Greenpeace has done several expeditions to communities in the provinces of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia that have been affected by the coal industry. Coal mining, coal combustion for thermal and coking purposes, and coal-petrochemical processes all require massive amounts of water, a scarce resource in arid Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
In one desert community that Greenpeace visited, villagers once could get their fresh water from wells dug 10m into the ground. A coal-petrochemical plant opened several kilometers away and started tapping into the water table in the area, chugging water away with pipes you can do jumping jacks in. Wastewater from the plant is toxic and treatment is under-regulated. Residents have now had to drill down to 150m to get fresh water for their crops, livestock, and families. And even those aquifers are drying up. When they petitioned the local government, they were ignored. When they traveled by train to Beijing to protest to higher authorities, they were jailed and deported back home.
In several other areas, streams and rivers have been dammed to create reservoirs for coal mines and power plants. Downstream communities have had to decrease the sizes of their herds and crops by more than half, with no compensation. And again, the water returned to the land from the mines and plants is highly polluted.
Still more communities are affected by underground mining. Greenpeace showed us pictures grasslands that looked like they’d been ravaged by artillery fire – massive craters pockmarked the land off into the horizon. This is subsidence, caused by collapsing negative spaces in mines. Subsidence events have swallowed and buried livestock, people, cars, and homes.
Greenpeace is on a mission to expose shocking stories about the effects of coal on ordinary people’s lives. IPE, on the other hand, takes a different, slightly more sensitive (sensitive to the government) approach to advocacy, focusing more on information disclosure, corporate accountability, and shareholder advocacy. To see more, check out this link: http://www.ipe.org.cn/En/
So what is China doing about this coal-water problem? Something along the lines of what the US did with the Clean Air Act (1963) and the Clean Water Act (1972): they’re focusing more on the air first. Air pollution from coal is more visual and tangible, glaringly apparent to all with eyes and lungs. Therefore, with all the recent uproar over PM2.5 and smog in China, policy has been shifting towards cleaning up the skies. Social stability depends on it. Citizens can literally see what’s killing them. Hence, new Chinese coal power plants have high tech scrubbers installed, and older dirty plants less than 300mw are being retired, while existing plants larger than 300mw are being retrofitted with modern tech to mitigate air pollution. As in the U.S., this is great news for the air and for appeasing the public. Unfortunately, it is still bad news for the water and for people’s health.
A more subtle issue for most people, water is, by nature, less visual and less tangible. Unless a community lives on an extremely polluted waterway and gets its water/food directly from it, chances are that the water it drinks will seem reasonably clean. The visual clarity of water does offer an indication of its particulate purity, however many pollutants in water, even at toxic levels, are invisible. Water can carry heavier particles and metals than air can. While more subtle, water issues are extremely important. We nourish our bodies with water and bathe in it. We grow our food with it and raise our animals and families with it. The consequences of polluted water are dire.
So why are better air emissions on coal combustion worse for the water? Many of the air pollutants captured by scrubbers are removed and stored in ash ponds. While some of this ash can be recycled into cement blocks, bricks and drywall, it contains toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, thallium and others. The ash ponds are also extremely under-regulated and poorly managed and maintained. Unfortunately in both the U.S. and China, coal ash is considered ordinary solid industrial waste, not toxic waste (as it should be). As a result, the pollutants in coal ash all too easily leach into waterways and groundwater.
Even with the focus on cleaning up the air, China is failing. The sheer volume of coal combustion is staggering. Half of the coal consumed in the world is consumed by China. Consumed not just for thermal energy production (still 75%+ of China’s energy mixture, with over 3,000 coal-fired power plants), but also for steel, cement, and petro-chemical production. 90%+ of China’s chemical products are derived from coal. And China produces around 50% of the world’s cement – yet another heavy user of coal.
So what’s the future of coal consumption in China and what can be done to offset its detrimental effects? Certainly, the more renewables, the better. And China has been making strides in that arena: China’s wind power production increased more than coal power production for the first time ever in 2012. While it may have been an anomalous year because of an unstable international coal market, this is a good indicator of China’s energy priorities. As soon as coal can be proven to investors to be less economically viable than other energy sources, the tides will turn. And I think we’re approaching that apex: many coal companies in the US are in trouble. And that’s exactly why they’re looking abroad, looking to tap into hungry energy markets in China and India, where environmental regulations are less well enforced.