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Methane's menace

Methane's menace

Ravenous China seeks to turn a killer into a resource

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JINCHENG, China - Jie nang, jian pai translates as "saving energy, reduce emission."

The phrase is quickly gaining popularity in China as more and more citizens insist on the type of economic progress that is environmentally sustainable.

This is the type of yin-and-yang philosophy being applied to the management of methane gas in China's coal mines. Take a bad thing and turn it into a good thing. Take something that kills thousands of Chinese coal miners each year and turn it into an economic boon.

"The killer will be turned into a beneficial source of energy," He Tiancai said through an interpreter.

Tiancai is general manager of Jincheng Coal Mining Group, which oversees some 325 coal mines in the region. He said 104 of those mines are considered gas-rich, and that managing methane is a top performance standard at the company for the sake of safety and the environment.

Yang Kejian of Beijing Guoneng Energy Co. Ltd. noted that methane vented into the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas liability, and said China emits 18 billion cubic meters of coal mine methane annually.

That's about 635.4 billion cubic feet of gas - or about 71 days worth of all natural gas produced in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

"This is not only serious air pollution, but also an energy resource waste," Kejian said.

Tiancai and Kejian were among dozens of Chinese business officials who took part in the "Sino-U.S. New Energy Sci-Tech Forum and Conference on Coal Mine Methane Recovery and Utilization" last month here in Jincheng.

So far, Jincheng leads China in the capture of coal mine methane, capturing about 56.5 billion cubic feet in 2008, according to Kejian. So there's still a lot of "killer" to be captured and turned into beneficial use.

And the urgency to do so cannot be overstated.

Hungry for coal

China's economy grew by more than 9 percent annually since the early 1970s, lifting millions of Chinese out of poverty. The pace accelerated in recent years, and the "how" is no secret.

In recent years China has added a new coal-fired power plant at a rate of about one per week. China produces about 2.6 billion tons of coal annually (the U.S. produced 1.14 billion tons in 2007), and for the first time was even a net importer of coal in 2008.

It's estimated that China's demand for coal will nearly double in two decades.

With cheap labor and ample access to massive coal reserves, coal has propelled China into the industrialized world with the third largest gross domestic product. China has recently surpassed the United States in cell phones and car sales.

Yet for all this economic success, having 20 percent of the world's population within its borders means China still has a long way to go to raise its standard of living across the board. Its GDP per capita is 104th in the world.

The United States still emits more carbon dioxide per capita, which is why some in the international community say the U.S.'s are luxury emissions. China's are survival. A common analogy is this: All the industrialized nations have enjoyed a six-course meal, and China showed up for dessert, and China is being asked to pay an equal portion for the whole dinner.

"It's a complex system where poverty can only be met by jobs and growth, where alleviating poverty is a prerequisite for political stability but where conventional growth is undermining long-term growth," said Geir Vollsaeter.

Vollsaeter, a policy adviser in Alston & Bird's environmental and land development group, has pursued carbon capture and storage projects around the world. He said there's an urgency to deploy cleaner coal technologies in China because resources are being extracted at an accelerated pace.

"The social needs are enormous, and the environmental degradation from rapid growth is severe," Vollsaeter said via e-mail. "Water and energy is wasted and growth will slow as the environment and people's health suffer even more."

Why methane?

While much of the global warming discussion centers on CO2 from the combustion of coal, methane gas is a significant greenhouse gas, too. Together, the United States and China are responsible for 62 percent of the world's man-caused methane emissions, and much of that comes from mining coal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Methane has 23 times the heat-trapping capacity in the atmosphere as CO2, according to atmospheric experts. And because methane is shorter-lived in the atmosphere compared to CO2, it also represents what some believe is the world's first best chance to have a rapid impact on atmospheric warming.

In the simplest of terms, better utilization of methane for energy will replace a certain amount of future coal consumption.

The biggest opportunities to control coal mine methane emissions are in the United States, Australia and here in China, where ventilation and refining systems can be implemented into current mining operations.

The U.S. coal mining industry vented an estimated 158 billion cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere in 2006, according to Raven Ridge Resources. About 22 percent of U.S. methane emissions are produced from surface mines - none of which are recovered.

"This is really an opportunity to do something about global warming," said Richard Mattus, managing director of Megtec Systems. "It's the short term we are concerned about, until we have (carbon) sequestration figured out."

It's business, too

"Methane poses a great danger to the lives of coal miners, but the challenges also present opportunities," said Pamela Franklin, manager of EPA's Coalbed Methane Outreach Program.

While it's easy to get behind harnessing coal mine methane for sake of saving coal miners' lives and stemming a potent greenhouse gas, Franklin's comment gets at the heart of the only practical way to do it: tout the tremendous business opportunity in tapping this energy resource.

Listening to Chinese political and business leaders here in Shanxi Province, it seems well understood that the three motivations are not mutually exclusive.

Addressing the Sino-U.S. New Energy forum, Wang Maoshe, mayor of Jincheng Municipal People's Government, said, "Social progress has made us a new city with economic vigor." He added that Shanxi's coal and coal mine methane resource represent "the best prospect for progress."

Just the beginning

In recent years, thousands of small "illegal" coal operations have shut down and several systems have been installed to harness coal mine methane emissions, reducing China's total coal mine methane emissions by about 141 billion cubic feet, according to officials.

Here in Jincheng, which spans several counties, the government has achieved a 60 percent utilization of coal mine methane, double its set target for its current five-year plan. This supplies some 800,000 Jincheng households with home heating and cooking gas, as well as a supply for glass and pottery manufacturing.

Taxis and buses run on compressed natural gas from coal mine methane, and the 120-megawatt Sihe Mine power plant (utilizing Caterpillar technology) is powered by coal mine methane - the largest plant of its kind in the world.

"This is very advanced and very modern U.S. technology," said He Tiancai of the Jincheng Coal Mining Group.

There are now 24 coal mine methane power plants providing 260 kilowatt hours per year to residents and businesses in Jincheng.

Yet an uneven system of mandates for coal mine methane development and subsidies for natural gas complicates the business of moving forward. Current policy in China mandates the use of coal mine methane in concentrations of 30 percent or more, disqualifying it from carbon credits. Below 30 percent, there are safety issues and economic feasibility issues that require carbon offset credits.

"If we only extract gas for only that sake (safety), it still does not compare to natural gas. So people are developing (coal mine methane) not for profit," Tiancai said.

Mattus, of Megtec Systems, noted that China and the rest of the world still need to figure out the policy and financial tools in addition to fine-tuning the technology.

What's needed, Mattus said, is a smart system of carbon credits, where companies can trade credits based on the value of greenhouse gases prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

"Carbon credits would guide more investment money to coal mine methane," he said.

Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com.

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