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A trove of coal pushes China's pollution westward

The only sign of life along the new expressway on the edge of the Gobi Desert are wild camels lazily crossing the asphalt. After a few hours of driving, smokestacks appear. Then, the skeletons of a city come into view.

This place is called Zhundong. It’s located in northeastern Xinjiang, near China’s western border with Mongolia. Underneath Zhundong lies China’s largest integrated coalfield — 390 billion metric tons of coal, 7 percent of the country’s reserves — enough to power China for 100 years.

Air pollution, much of it caused by burning coal, has hit a crisis point along China’s east coast. That’s why China is building new coal-fired plants here, thousands of miles away at the opposite end of the country. “We’re building a city here,” said a man installing sprinklers for a row of wilting trees. He points out partially built landmarks of a future desert city planned for half a million people — a Las Vegas for China’s coal industry.

“See over there? That’s going to be the new city hall. And over there? An international hotel,” he said. 

The beginnings of a desert metropolis: apartment buildings are constructed in Zhundong, a city that will someday accommodate half a million people. They’ll work either in the mining industry, where companies are strip-mining coal, or at the several power plants circling the city. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)


Beyond the construction, giant excavators scrape the earth, releasing black coal dust inside strip mines that circle the new city. Much of the coal is burned at six coal-fired power plants rising from the desert.

Gan Yiwei, an energy campaigner at Greenpeace in Beijing, said Zhundong is part of a broader push to transfer coal burning to China’s far west. He says it brings a host of environmental challenges with it. “China’s northwest is dry, and coal projects like these require a lot of water,”  Gan said. “Developing these projects will impact the little water that’s left in some of these areas.”

The silhouettes of cranes along the desert horizon of Zhundong. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Near Zhundong, water is in short supply. It borders the Kalamaili Nature Reserve along the western fringe of the Gobi Desert. On this day, the desert air is filled with smog.

“Developing coal in this region might be good for Eastern China’s air, but this is just transferring air pollution from one part of China to another,” Gan said.

In return, energy will be transferred in the opposite direction. Gas processed from the coal mined in Zhundong will be piped thousands of miles to eastern China starting in 2017. That same year, electricity from burning coal at this site will begin to travel along a network of ultra-high voltage transmission lines that’ll span the length of the country.

All this new transmission is promising for Xinjiang’s vibrant wind and solar energy industries, too. But Yu Wuming, former CEO of Goldwind, China’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, is worried.

“China’s grid used to dismiss solar and wind power, but now renewables are becoming so big they’re threatening the profit of coal,” Yu said. “The grid has traditionally been tied to coal, and their profits are bundled together. It’s a difficult problem to solve.”

But it’s a problem the market is already helping to solve. China’s economic slowdown means coal consumption in China has dropped nearly eight percent in the last two years.  Zhou Xizhou, analyst for IHS, says this will help Chinese leader Xi Jinping reach the promises he made during his summit with President Obama this year to dramatically cut China’s carbon emissions. Zhou said China’s ministry of environment has already rejected proposals for new projects that would have turned coal into gas.

One of several coal-fired power plants that are operating in Zhundong. Electricity from these plants will be sent to Eastern China by the end of 2017, reducing air pollution in the more populated part of China, but increasing it in the region of Xinjiang on the country’s western fringe. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

“So there is obviously a camp in Beijing that is very opposed to these kinds of projects,” Zhou said. “And of course there is an industrial development camp that still wants to see those projects go forward especially in the local areas where it does create economic output and jobs. So this is going to be a long-term struggle between different schools of thoughts in the Chinese government.” 

One thing the two sides can agree on is that the earth’s climate is in trouble, and China plays a big role in solving the problem.

“When we are in government meetings, you really don’t see a whole lot of debate on the fact that something needs to be done,” Zhou said , “and certainly nobody is disputing the science of climate change.”

China’s top leadership is filled with former engineers with strong backgrounds in science. Intellectually, they understand what’s at stake. They’re also surrounded by the evidence of decades of environmental neglect. Zhou said it’s a refreshing change from the small but vociferous group of lawmakers in the United States who deny the science behind climate change altogether.

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