China is erecting huge industrial complexes in remote areas to convert coal to synthetic fuel that could make the air in its megacities cleaner. But the complexes use so much energy that the carbon footprint of the fuel is almost double that of conventional coal and oil, spelling disaster for earth's climate, a growing chorus of scientists is warning.
Efforts by China to develop so-called "coal bases" in its far-flung regions have received scant attention beyond the trade press, but scientists watching the effort say it could cause climate damage that eclipses worldwide climate protection efforts.
The facilities, which resemble oil refineries, use coal to make liquid fuels, chemicals, power and "syngas," which is like natural gas but extracted from coal. The fuels and electricity are then transported to China's big cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.
Currently 16 coal base sites are being built and many are operational. One being constructed in Inner Mongolia will eventually occupy nearly 400 square miles—almost the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.
Driving China's desire to create coal bases are its soaring energy demand, abundant coal resources, lack of inexpensive alternatives and the need to move coal power production out of its cities—which are already drowning in smog from dirty coal plants. Meanwhile, its energy-hungry economy is booming to meet insatiable demands of consumers in America and Europe for cheaply manufactured products.
By any measure, China's coal base plan is the single largest fossil fuel development project in the world. So while more coal bases could mean cleaner air for many urban Chinese, scientists fear a nightmare scenario for global climate change.
By 2011, humans had added 531 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , the leading global body for assessing climate science. That figure means countries have already blown through more than half of the world's "carbon budget"—or the maximum amount of carbon humans can spew into the air to keep warming below 2-degrees Celsius, the threshold that would trigger runaway warming.
Experts estimate that if China's planned coal bases are built, the country's emissions would likely hit 10 billion tons a year—putting it on track to consume the world's remaining 349 billion tons by 2050.
"This is a major change in China," said Robert Jackson, director of Duke University's Center on Global Change, of the coal bases. "If they proceed, both water use and greenhouse gases would skyrocket."
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China's Dirty Air: A First-Hand Look
Speeding 200 miles per hour on a bullet train over the crest of a hill toward Beijing, China's air pollution dilemma becomes clear—as trees, farm buildings and power poles fade into a grey haze.
It's as if a heavy fog has filled the air. A young Chinese student riding the train on that August afternoon explains that it's air pollution.
Particle-laden smog has been enveloping wide areas of China more often and reaching ever-higher levels due to growing use of energy as hundreds of millions of its citizens moved out of poverty. The smog kills 1.2 million Chinese prematurely each year, according to a World Bank estimate in 2013.
Indeed, a two-week trip in China—traveling in a big circle from Beijing south toward Shanghai, west to Xi’an and then north through Linfen and Shanxi Province, the heart of China's coal country—becomes a smog travelogue. Even in August, a time of year that's normally clean compared to winter and early spring when pollution peaks, the air is thick with haze, although it is nothing like the pollution sieges of the past two winters. Then, young and old alike had to stay indoors. Working adults wore masks when they commuted to work. Emergency rooms were flooded with respiratory patients.
On the surface, the source is readily identifiable.
"Too much coal," exclaimed Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Fuqiang Yang , waving his hand across his face. Fuqiang, senior adviser on energy, environment and climate change in NRDC's Beijing Office, said China needs to move to cleaner forms of energy and greater energy efficiency to clean up its air and address climate change, rather than depending upon coal.
But that's easier said than done.
China produces 70 percent of its electricity from coal, using it to make steel and concrete as it builds whole cities, and burns 47 percent of all the coal that's mined each year in the world.
"It's hard to see that changing anytime soon," said Barry Jones, general manager of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute  in Australia, an energy industry-funded organization that promotes CCS technology. He thinks that cleaning up coal by capturing and sequestering the carbon emissions ultimately is needed, yet admits efforts are nascent. If all goes well, by some estimates, by 2020, China will be able to sequester about 10-20 million of the more than 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide it emits annually today.
The Worldwatch Institute  estimates at least a third of those emissions stem from producing exports for the U.S. and other nations as China increasingly serves as the world's workshop. "Outsourcing has led to tremendous pollution in China," said Steven J. Davis, University of California at Irvine professor of earth sciences . He's been studying the amount of emissions attributed to exports produced in China since 2010.
CCS won't put a dent in those greenhouse gas emissions, either, particularly now that China is moving to clean up its air in novel ways by using even more of the mineral Marco Polo marveled at when visiting ancient Cathay in 1292.
A Coal Base Almost as Big as L.A.
Far from its major population centers along the coastal plain, state-owned companies like Shenhua , the world's largest coal company, are busy building huge coal bases to make the most of China's most abundant energy resource. Several complexes, at varying stages of completion in Shanxi Province, Inner Mongolia and other inland areas, already are turning coal into more power, synthetic natural gas, gasoline, chemicals and fertilizer.
The process extracts these materials by heating up coal in the absence of oxygen so it turns into gases instead of burning. Those gases then are captured and used as chemical building blocks to make the other products. The problem is that it takes a lot of energy in the form of electricity or other means to heat up the coal. This combustion releases carbon dioxide to the air. Burning the products from the process—be it syngas, or liquid fuels—releases yet more of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Researchers estimate the complete cycle releases almost twice the carbon to the air as burning the coal alone in a power plant.
The biggest coal base is Shenhua's Ningdong Energy and Chemical Industry Base  in Ningxia, about 700 miles west of Beijing. Conceived in 2003, Shenhua said it broke ground in 2008 on the 386-square-mile coal base. That's an area about three-quarters the size of Los Angeles that's being covered bit by bit over a period of some 17 years with coal mines, power plants, power lines, pipelines, roads, rail tracks and all manner of chemical processing plants with their towers, smokestacks and tanks.
Since beginning its planning in 2003, Shenhua says it's brought on line "a large number of coal mines, coal chemicals, electric power, railway, and coal deep processing projects," as well as a coal-to-methanol production plant.
In 2012, Shenhua broke ground on a plant to turn coal into liquids that can be used for a wide variety of products, including fuel and plastics. The project is so huge that engineers used the world's largest crane to set in place the unit that's to serve as the heart of the plant, a 2,155-ton Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reactor that's as high as a 17-story building.
By 2020, Shenhua hopes to complete the base, which by then is planned to produce 30,000 MW of power, along with a constellation of products ranging from gasoline to chemicals. It's to consume 100 million tons a year of coal from surrounding mines.
Ironically, the bases stand a decent chance of cleaning up dirty air in China's coastal cities by moving coal-fired power production to remote inland areas, not to mention yielding synthetic gas to pipe to cities.
Unstoppable, with Major Climate Implications
About the only thing that may stop the bases from being fully built is that they need large amounts of water in a water-tight land, according to Greenpeace activist Lifeng Fang in Beijing. He thinks that water represents the upper limit on further use of coal.
But Jackson, the director of Duke's Center on Global Change, differs. He maintains China will merely move herders and farmers off already dry land in its interior and transfer their water rights to the coal industry, which produces more economic value than agriculture with the water.
Already, the government is moving herders off their grazing land into cities in Inner Mongolia where conflicts have arisen around Shenhua's coal base in Ordos, according to Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center .
"It's increasingly tense," he said, noting that violence has flared numerous times in the past three years as herders trying to stay on their land engage in confrontations with coal company employees charged with building the Ordos coal base.
Meanwhile, while water and ethnic conflicts may have slowed the coal bases, China's National Development and Reform Commission last year approved China National Coal Company to begin working on a coal-to-chemicals plant at the Yulin coal base in Shanxi Province.
Also last year, the first major syngas plant in Datang, Inner Mongolia, began operating. It's capable of producing 4 billion cubic meters of gas each year and is linked to Beijing through a new 267-mile-long pipeline. Like natural gas, syngas is much cleaner at the burner tip than coal.
For comparison, the bases already being built will emit more than three times as much carbon dioxide by 2020 when completed than fully developing the Canadian tar sands will loft into the atmosphere. The tar sands will add 420 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by then, according to the environmental organization, while China's coal bases in development will boost that nation’s emissions 1.4 billion tons annually by 2020.
Jackson believes Greenpeace's assessment is right because of all the energy it takes to turn coal into syngas or liquid fuels. On a lifecycle basis, Jackson points out syngas emits up to 82 percent more greenhouse gases than mining and burning coal in conventional power plants.
China has approved nine syngas plants, according to Chi-Jen Yang, a research scientist at the Duke center, who's been tracking developments. Ultimately, 40 syngas plants are being planned, including five already approved at Ordos. If all are completed, they will release 110 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over 40 years, according to Chi-Jen, and they represent just a portion of the various coal processing facilities being planned and built on the coal bases and other scattered locations. That amount alone—110 billion tons—would represent almost a third of the carbon budget that's remaining to all nations between now and 2050 if humanity is to avoid irreversible global warming.
Meanwhile, coal-to-liquid technology is advancing, as evidenced by approvals for facilities in Ningdong, already under construction, and Yulin. Coal-to-liquids almost doubles emissions compared with using oil-based gasoline, according to Chi-Jen.
That's why building out the coal bases will put China on the road to emitting 10 billion tons a year of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2030 and that's even if the nation succeeds in meeting its goal of becoming 20 percent more energy efficient per unit of economic output, explains David Fridley, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who's been studying Chinese energy use since the early 1980s.
Modeling studies that Fridley has worked on at LBNL show that under the most aggressive cleanup scenario, China's carbon dioxide emissions will not peak until early in the 2020s. His projections don’t count the impact of the coal bases, but assume China instead will make a radical turn toward renewable energy. Currently, China is the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, pumping out 8.7 billion tons in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration, compared to 5.5 billion tons by the U.S., the No. 2 emitter. It’s adding up.
"There's no scenario we can conceive of that's rational where coal gets backed out,"said Fridley of LBNL's modeling projections for China's energy future. "Coal is the foundation of their energy system."
China as World's Workshop: America's Role
The U.S. played a major role in turning China into the coal-fired workshop of the world.
At the heart of that story are figures both familiar and beloved by American environmentalists, former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. It was Clinton who greased the skids through trade deals in the 1990s for the whole U.S. economy to become dependent upon goods made in China with rock bottom wages for labor and cheap, dirty energy. Walk through a big box retail store today and read where products are made and most likely it’s in China.
Ironically, Clinton championed free trade while doing much to clean up the air in America. Clinton's former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who helped broker free trade deals with China, today admits that the U.S. should have worked harder to include environmental conditions in the agreements. Meanwhile, while Clinton, Kantor and others worked to stoke up trade with China, Gore lectured the central government in Beijing on the need to control greenhouse gases. In 1997, he showed China's leaders the hockey stick graph he later made famous in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth."
Next, coming soon: How the U.S. set up China as a pollution haven and exported its air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions at the expense of U.S. workers and communities.
William J. Kelly is co-author with Chip Jacobs of the forthcoming book The People’s Republic of Chemicals (Rare Bird Books). This article and the book have been supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Kelly also coauthored Smogtown: The Lung Burning History of Air Pollution in Los Angeles (Overlook Press) and is correspondent for California Current. He served as spokesperson and communications manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the smog control agency for Los Angeles, from 1988 through 2001.