While experts worldwide have opened fire on China's move to produce natural gas from coal, Chinese policymakers appear to be standing pat on their decision.
During a recent press conference in Beijing, Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, told reporters that "central and western China are rich in coal and have a bigger environmental capacity; we encourage adopting coal-to-gas technology there, and use the produced gas to replace coal needed in the eastern part of the nation."
Wu's claim came at a time when doubts are running high on whether or not China will continue its support for building massive synthetic natural gas plants. While the plants can convert coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, associated water stress and environmental damages could pose another problem.
Those concerns have already forced Beijing once to put coal-to-gas development on hold. The Chinese government called off the approval of new synthetic natural gas plants in 2010 and only recently renewed its interest.
In the press conference Saturday, words from the Chinese official indicated why.
"According to our monitoring, only three of 74 recorded cities met the new national air quality standards throughout last year," said Wu. He added that Beijing and surrounding areas saw air pollution on more than 60 percent of days in 2013, and city clusters in the Yangtze and the Pearl river deltas also experienced chronic smog problems.
"Those regions account for only 8 percent of China's lands, but they consume 43 percent of the total coal the country uses," Wu explained. "Emissions from coal combustion are a key source of pollutants; if we want to curb air pollution, we have to curb the use of coal."
Since last year, China has already started replacing coal-fired boilers and power plants with gas-burning ones on a large scale. Gas imports soared in line with the rising demand, and according to a report from China National Petroleum Corp.'s research arm, in 2013, the share of imported gas went beyond 30 percent of China's total gas supply for the first time.
Producing natural gas from coal, a resource that is abundant in the nation, is being viewed by Chinese policymakers as a solution to ensure the gas supply without compromising energy security. They approved more coal-to-gas projects in 2013 than in previous years combined and target reaching a production capacity of 50 billion cubic meters by 2020.
However, the move attracted criticism. Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, for one, called converting coal to natural gas nothing but hiding pollution. In a recently published op-ed, Lin argued that using coal-based synthetic natural gas for power generation could eventually increase coal consumption up to 38 percent for each kilowatt-hour of electricity production, because of low efficiency in the coal-to-gas conversion process.
There are environmental risks, too. A commentary from researchers at Duke University said that carbon emissions, water needs and industrial waste associated with China's large-scale coal-fueled synthetic natural gas plants could lock the country into an unsustainable development path.
On carbon footprints alone, the researchers note that "if synthetic natural gas is used to generate electricity, its life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are 36 to 82 percent higher than pulverized coal fired power. If used to drive vehicles, synthetic natural gas has emissions twice as large as those from gasoline vehicles."
Adjusting the details, not the direction
Speaking of China's lingering passion on coal-to-gas projects, Chi-Jen Yang, an energy expert at Duke University and one of the commentary's authors, said that he never expects an overnight attitude change.
"It is never possible for Chinese officials to openly admit that their previous policy was wrong, and there are significant embedded interests in continuing the development of synthetic natural gas," Yang said in an email interview.
"However, I believe that people in China and worldwide are more aware of synthetic natural gas now," Yang continued.
Last month, when China's National Energy Administration called experts for their opinions on coal gasification, how to mitigate the impact of carbon emissions and other environmental problems were among discussed topics. The administration later said in an online statement that it will revise its policy on coal-to-liquid and coal-to-natural-gas, though no information was made available on what change will come, on which aspect, and how.
"Unless China requires carbon capture and storage for synthetic natural gas, which seems unlikely now, the environmental regulations in China do not put any limit on carbon emissions at all," Yang said.
"The potential increase of carbon dioxide emissions from synthetic natural gas could be so huge and disastrous," he said, adding that "the interest groups are still completely ignoring the problems."