Coal is the source of many of China’s headaches these days. The fossil fuel is one of the cheapest options for producing consistent baseload power, but it carries with it a heavy environmental cost in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in local air pollution. China is attempting to wean its appetite on the sooty stuff (it accounts for roughly half of the world’s consumption) by boosting consumption of natural gas, which emits roughly half as much carbon as coal. That potential solution is fraught with difficulties, however, as the New York Times reports:
China’s ability to extract sufficient natural gas is in serious doubt. Despite heavy investment and strong government support, China’s natural gas production is growing at a slower pace than its decelerating economy. China’s production of natural gas increased just 6 percent last year and 4.4 percent in 2012.China’s main problem is that shale gas production has fallen far short of expectations. That has left the country relying on alternative methods considered also-rans by American standards, like pumping natural gas from coal fields.
But extracting natural gas from coal seams is no picnic:
Cracks in the subterranean coal are flooded with water that needs to be pumped out before the gas will emerge. The coal seams are so cold that gels injected into the well, which are meant to help release the gas, sometimes become gummy and block the flow instead. And there is constant concern about hitting the labyrinths of active coal mines that honeycomb the area.
China’s struggles to develop its shale gas reserves, the largest in the world, are well documented. The country lacks everything that made shale take off in America: simple geology, pipeline infrastructure, water resources, a large pool of capital and the investors willing to take risks on unproven plays, and the technical expertise to drill horizontal wells and frack successfully.To help alleviate the toxic smog blanketing its major cities (a problem that is only getting worse), China plans to build more than sixty plants that will convert coal into natural gas. The plants will be sited in rural areas, which should help clear the skies of China’s megacities, and will produce electricity and natural gas to be consumed in urban areas. But this solution, too, has its problems. Researchers estimate that these plants will produce between 36 and 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional coal power plants. Then, too, there are the costs of transmitting the gas produced from the hinterlands to the cities. In other words, there are high premiums, both environmental and economic, involved in outsourcing coal energy production to the countryside.China is pursuing another natural gas option, as well: boosting imports. But this, too, carries with it a number of costs and risks that Beijing’s leaders will want to minimize. In today’s world, the more of your energy needs you can meet with domestic supplies, the better insulated you are from disruptions, and the more foreign policy options you have available. China wants a homegrown natural gas boom for good reasons, but it’s proving mighty difficult to pull off thus far.