BOSTON--China's reliance on coal has driven workers into deeper and more dangerous mines, but industry reforms offer hope for improvements, a new international study says.
Last month, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released a two-year study of China's coal industry with support from key government agencies, including the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
The study found that China already has many programs to make coal-burning cleaner, though the country has become the world's biggest coal user and source of global warming emissions. The question is how the measures will be applied to treat problems like pollution and industrial accidents.
"China will need to decide for itself how to proceed, but its actions, more than those of any other country, will shape the global approach to the cleaner use of coal," the report said.
In the 320-page study, the IEA argues that the campaign for cleaner coal depends not only on improving efficiency and emissions but on mining, transport, and the pricing of fuel.
"Cleaner coal is often conceived as simply power generation technologies, but there's a lot more to using coal in a better way," said the IEA's project leader, Jonathan Sinton, in a Radio Free Asia interview.
Supplies 'harder to develop'
Although China is the world's biggest coal producer, its supplies are getting harder to develop. Each year, mines have to be dug deeper, increasing both the costs and the safety risks for workers.
"The most easily available coal has been mined out," said Sinton. "There's a lot more resource, but it tends to be deeper underground, farther away, [and] higher in sulfur, ash, and other impurities. So, it becomes more expensive."
"Unless you improve mine safety, it also becomes more dangerous," he said.
China is currently mining coal at an average depth of 400 meters (1,312 feet), but this figure is expected to reach 500 meters in 2010, the report said.
Over 3,200 miners died in coal accidents last year, according to the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), making China's death toll the highest for the industry in the world.
But those fatalities were 15 percent fewer than in 2007 and less than half the number in 2002, the report said, calling the improvement "a tribute to the effectiveness of recent efforts to improve work safety."
Safety still a problem
Part of China's continuing safety problem is that, unlike in the U.S., only 4 percent of China's reserves can be developed at opencast mines, or excavations on the surface.
And though China has many large mechanized mines that use safer technology, some 2 million workers still face high risks in smaller underground mines with poor safety equipment or training, the study said.
By next year, China could produce 2.24 billion tons of coal at 13 large bases that provide relatively good conditions and washing facilities to reduce high-polluting dust, the IEA said. That would be 80 percent of production, raising the question of whether China could simply close all unsafe mines and still meet its needs.
"It would be good if it could, and more efficient use of coal is the first step in getting there," said Sinton, but he added that energy demand continues to be driven by economic growth, which has outpaced technological change.
Sinton said China can still improve safety at small mines, noting that India, most of whose mines are underground, has about one-fourth the fatality rate.
China is already making progress with some of the most advanced technologies for curbing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which cause global warming. These include units that produce synthetic gas from coal and "ultra-supercritical" power plants, which reduce coal use by operating at higher temperature and efficiency.
The Huaneng Group's Gaobeidian power plant in Beijing is also being built with the most advanced "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) technology to trap CO2 emissions. Environmentalists are looking at such plants as a key to combating climate change.
More emissions likely
But the study concludes that large-scale use of CCS systems in China is unlikely before 2030. That may mean another 20 years of emissions before the technology can be proven and put in place.
"It's a huge challenge worldwide," Sinton said. Among other proposals, the report recommends more joint ventures and foreign investments to promote technology transfer.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee, said the report's key finding may be that only a small share of China's coal will come from more efficient and safer opencast operations in the future.
Large opencast projects have been developed in northern China in the past 10 years, but these will not provide all the resources that the country needs, Andrews-Speed told RFA.
"The luxury that the country has enjoyed for the last 10 years may only be enjoyed for another decade or so before they become reliant again on underground reserves, getting ever-deeper and ever more expensive and unsafe," he said.
Underground mining can be made safer but only at a higher cost, said Andrews-Speed. "As the coal reserves get deeper, it just costs you more and more," he said.
The report also highlighted a serious public cost that goes beyond the fatality figures. China currently has 600,000 former coal miners suffering from lung disease, the study said, indicating that the industry may be adding over 70,000 new cases per year.
"It's a huge social cost, and if the government picks up the health service, then there's a huge cost to the health service," Andrews-Speed said.