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Too Green to be True
China "Bans" Low-Quality Coal

Earlier this week, Beijing announced that it would be banning the use of low-grade coal. The kind of coal China is looking to phase out is high in sulfur and ash content, and is therefore especially environmentally damaging (which is saying something, considering how bad even mid-grade coal is). The move came partly as a result of a growing glut of coal in China, as booming domestic coal production and a slowing economy have led to an oversupply of the sooty energy source. But this was also seen as an important victory in China’s “war” against pollution. In a country where blue urban skies are becoming increasingly rare, getting choosy over what kind of coal one burns could go a long way towards fixing the endemic air pollution crisis.

Now, it’s looking as if that initial green enthusiasm may give way to disappointment, after reports have emerged that China will exempt power plants—consumers of roughly half of the country’s coal—from the new restrictions. Reuters reports:

[T]wo sources from large power companies said utilities would be exempt from these requirements.”This regulation doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t apply to power stations so we will continue taking Australian coal if the price is right,” said an executive in charge of coal procurement at one of the country’s top utility firms. […]

“[W]e have also received clarifications from our utilities customers that this regulation doesn’t apply to them,” [said a trader from a large international firm.]

There’s no official word yet on how comprehensive this ban is, but if industry experts are to be believed, than half of China’s coal consumption will be exempt from any of these new bans on low-grade varieties.

That’s bad news for citizens stuck breathing smoggy air, but it’s welcome news for Australia, among others, which exports large amounts of low-grade coal to China. As the FT put it, the ban “would, in effect, bar the import of lower-quality coal from Australia, Southern Africa and elsewhere, since the cities along the east coast are also the biggest consumers of imported seaborne coal.” Exemptions, then, will be well-received by miners abroad.

China burns nearly half of the world’s coal, and it doesn’t do so because it loves toxic air pollution. Coal is the cheapest source of baseload energy around, so while it’s an important step to ban the dirtiest varieties, it’s also not surprising that exemptions will accompany these restrictions. Old King Coal, it seems, lives on.

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  • Rick Johnson

    And long may King Coal reign. The cheapest and most reliable source of energy known to humanity and the bedrock of our prosperity since the industrial revolution.

  • SLEcoman

    WRM starts out signalling out high sulfur and high ash coal as particularly damaging, then talks about the benefits of technology, but ignores the pollution control technology that can be applied to coal-fired power plants that can capture 99.8% of the ash and 98% of the sulfur emissions. And no higher ash and sulfur content in the coal do not directly translate into higher emissions as the air pollution control equipment collection of efficiences increase as the ash and sulfur content of the coal increase.

    There very high air pollution control efficiencies are only achievable for power plants and some large industrial power houses, so it is logical to exclude coal-fired power plants from an arbitrary ash and/or sulfur content regulation.

    Regulations restricting ash and/or sulfur content do make sense where coal is used for residential or commercial space heating, where there really isn’t commercially viable pollution control technology available.

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