Jia Zhangke’s Lüliang: Illegal Mining and Accident Coverups as a Way of Life

Just as 2014 was coming to an end, film director Jia Zhangke’s Shanxi home “city” of Lüliang 吕梁 was again in the headlines for massive violation of mine safety standards and operating countless small collieries without proper licensing or inspection. (New York Times, Dec. 28. 2014). The scale of the arrests and investigations seems to be unprecedented, but the publicity and fines and even imprisonments are nothing new. Nor will the “clean sweep” end the inspection misdemeanors and the litany of explosions and floods that has dogged the private, small-scale mines of the sub-region since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, given Jia’s commitment to merging film and rapportage – or seeming rapportage, his first major film, “Platform” (2004) opens with a kind of mini-take on a coal mine disaster story presumably unfolding just as the film was being scripted.

Characteristically, the place and scale of the disaster, even how it occurred, are left murky at best. All that is clear is that there has been some kind of tunnel collapse and that a number (how many is not stated) of villagers working in the pit have been killed: the seemingly farcical county (xian) song-and-dance troupe’s performance of a skit enacting the excitement of elder peasants on a train to visit Mao’s home town of Shaoshan is in fact part of a “consolation” theatrical (weiwen yanchu) of the sort that troupes of its ilk were originally constituted to perform. That the audience of fellow-villagers seems more interested in gossip than ceremony or even grief suggests that they have seen far too many of these ceremonies to be deeply shaken.

Or is it just cynicism? Just barely within the lens covering the “choo-choo” dance one espies a(nother) thumbprint of early Deng Xiaoping era de-collectivization/privatisation hoopla cross-commenting on the village or township mine accident: a giant “plan” (guihuatu) of the “new” village that the mine’s prosperity (and tax yield) will pay for in some form or another. From the naked prominence of that ambitious blueprint for the future, one is probably to assume that the mine will continue to operate.

So the veneer of cheerfulness and even rowdiness – reinforced by the absurdity of the performance itself (featuring teenagers as grandmoms and granddads all keyed up about a visit to the dead Chairman’s hill-country home) – becomes a kind of defense against any degree of political optimism.

Captive Overscale: The Strange Anatomy of China’s Wannabe #1 Power Producer, Datang Power

Power stations: How grotesque they can be. The largest structures on earth though they are not the tallest.
They are something for Ayn Rand: Promethean both by psychology and by necessity. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “China Syndrome”. Or something from a Piranesi nightmare. Peopled by liveried, anonymous workers in construction crew safety helmets, like soldiers visible in the early morning hours, doing their morning exercises. Not allowed to communicate with non-employees. In China, a surviving echo of Maoist Uniformity or silent Collectivity, only now in red, not blue. Though most are still fueled by coal, the ones we remember best are the nuclear stations that have run amok: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and of course Fukushima, creatures of modernity so large that they literally “carry” whole cities or even national regions on their backs.

Mao Dun (Shen Bingyan) says it all when he summarizes the alien self-advertised symbols of “the city” (Shanghai): “Light: Heat! Power!” 向西望,叫人猛一惊的,是高高地装在一所洋房顶上而且异常庞大的霓虹电管广告,射出火一样的赤光和青燐似的绿焰:Light,Heat,Power!Note that they are not rendered in Chinese, for China was not then yet a growth-machine whose national stature was/could be measured by annual gains in the supply of electricity and town gas.

But these creatures are also ominous in their non-nuclear variant, particularly in the “developing” world where they defy health and pollution restraints with the blessing of the growth-obsessed Authorities. And not just by the toxins that spew from their signature smokestacks, but in what they do to the local geology as moonscapes are carved out of the surrounding prairies to keep them fed with cheap coal, draining the water table and driving back the barriers that keep desert and drought at bay. (Strangely, “carbon” emissions are always a going topic, nothing concealed, but that perhaps is because they are invisible, truly global, and nearly impossible to reduce).

The Corporatist Priority in Planning for Power – and Its post-2011 challenge

Until the very end of the previous decade, the retail urban end-consumer did not figure in the calculus of “public” satisfaction with either availability or cost of everyday electric power and centrally supplied heat. Even as updates rolled out on production and over-all consumption, while most provinces, in a doggedly Mao-ist-populist mode, continued to post figures indicating the amount of power supplied/used by the “rural” (village) sector, no data column was inserted for specifically URBAN household use, not to mention average price. (There is SOME excuse for this: “retail” consumption was and is funneled through a government end-distributor, attached to each major “condominium”). Even though rolling power outages and brownouts reached infuriating levels in 2006, a “third party” (NGO) interest did not develop to challenge the government’s mismanagement. Characteristically, there WAS a snap-of-the-fingers “solution”, which keyed to the loosening of regulations on “backyard”, cottage industry power plants, these days dismissed from the CEC stats if they have .006 MW or less of capacity (at last count, not a few provinces had as many as 300 of them). Which may have ameliorated the crisis quickly, but, like Lenin’s NEP, left a legacy of sloppy and low-efficiency collectives on the ground, which the central machine is still patiently dismantling.

It was (likewise) this corporatist orientation, favoring industrial users and esp. heavy industry, that gave rise to the “[Inner] Mongolian Syndrome”: building oversized coal fired plants at mineside to take advantage of the stripmining boom that was encouraged by the invasion of US megaminers, notably Peabody Energy (see “Magamines” post, above….). The result was an unsustainable “big dig” in that unhappy, still largely pastoral “province” (qua frontier): something close to 41 coal-fired plants went online with 1980s era technology (c/e <=33%, or about 370 kg sce/kwH) with (2008) 267 “suppliers” before rein-in began, and 41 coal-fired plants of average 1,240 MW size, very much under the 2,000-5,000 MW scale necessary for SC and USC power generation. In so anarchic a situation, while nominal coal extraction boomed to 1 billion MT/yr in 2011, low quality doomed this treasure to be frittered away in off-grid local power matrices, highlighted by the very odd low voltage “wire” strung between Togtoh and the Capital that was meant (but will not…?) to supply 1/3 of Beijing’s woefully inadequate base load, no doubt at prices that make the sale(s) unprofitable. (An even odder off-grid arrangement, for example, connects Bayanhur? sp) in central “E Inner Mongolia” with the now underpowered “old core” of Liaoning, the rather fancy footwork having been executed by one of probably many goldbrickers at last forced to flee or abandon what’s left of the once fabulously productive Fushun mining pockets, also open pit but now too deep to scavenge). And the oddest of all: Datang and its sister power holding companies aren’t doing much investing either in upgraded mining or in more efficient (meaning higher-tech) plant. So we are confronting not just a corporatist model of priorities, but one that battens on the lower political status of the only semi-Sinitic mixed Mongol/Manchu and Korean population that dominates the eastern 2/3 or so of the “self-government” AR, or Mengdong. (In an even uglier variant of the same profile, the central and “western” extension of that same “province” has become a free-wandering zone for all of the CTL and CTG gasification technologies, most wrenchingly for SNG, which has proved such a boondoggle that even Datang, its earliest and grandest promoter, has been making every effort to sell out its SNG stake….).

Fig. 1 The Control Station of the Toktogh Megaplant, China’s Largest (4,800 MW) and soon to be larger still..
1155736254390906780Toktog Coltrol Cdenetr and plant 1

Fig. 2 The 8 Togtogh Turbine Plants, end-day View (outskirts of Hehhot/Ordos Municipality, Inner Mongolia
1291125718188731615Toktog Megalith

Fig. 3 Satellite Image of the Turbine Array, Nearly 1 km long….
Togtoh Station saltellitye

China’s Precarious Energy vs Pollution Situation: Target Shortfalls and Wishful Thinking?

Energy squeeze and energy-infrastructure expense, not to mention (more recent) pressures from within and without to bring down atmospheric pollution strangling China’s major cities, have for the last several years started to cut into economic growth as well as political legitimacy. How to (or even can?…) the two be reconciled and at what cost to the mantra of high growth, upon which so much has been staked since the ’80s, has become a permanent undertow issue, as should be evident from the endless stream of energy and pollution “side-effect” control rulings that now pours (and re-pours) from the new regulatory summit, the National Development and Reform Commission (hereafter NDRC, fagaiwei. ) since 2003 when its consolidation of central economic power(s) was finalized.

Something like a flashpoint in the regulatory nexus was reached during the end-Dec. 2012 crisis over urban air quality, coming at the transition between Plan 11 and Plan 12. An event (since become background noise) that literally “brought home” (to the capital) the non-carbon garbage that had for some many years been spewed and parked “somewhere else” (as CO^2 still can be). The brake on growth was no longer invisible or intangible: “netizens” could see and cough it, and “underage-expectancy” deaths began to be reported in the multiple ‘000s per year. may not be alone responsible for economic deceleration (see below) but it surely exacerbated it. A new stress-point has been added to planning and achievement reports: gains in efficiency of overall energy use and in the generation of electric power. (Table 1, Lines 10-11). The startling plunge after 2012 Q 1’s 8.9 YOY gain surely has a lot to do with resource expenditure tightening however much it also reflects “lower property investment, dwindling credit growth and weakening industrial production” – though the two are not anywhere presented in tandem.

Figs 1-2 .1 Declining Growth Trend – Seeking a New Mean +/- 7.0%



The Mongolian Coal Caper: from Best of Times to Worst of Times….

(This post moves on from the previous…..).

While we weren’t watching….:

The Inner Mongolian coal boom has turned into a gut-searing contraction, though one that may augur well for improving the environmental profile for the “steam coal” (for conversion to electric power) industry in N and Central China. What happened?

Figures released for the 18 months from Jan. 2013 to June 2014 (the latter including forecasts for all 2014) may not have been a total surprise, but the rate of contraction was, and so remains. While output (physical basis) had grown at an astounding 27.8%/yr from 2000-2010, suddenly 2012 was a sluggish 8%, followed in 2013 by -6.4% then (as of Aug.) -9.3% on a year to date basis for the current year. If it looks like a topout, and smells like a post-crest crash, then indeed it is probably both, and not yet over, with the decline likely to continue for another year or two, as the annual number settles at perhaps 900 million MT (raw), 15 percent below peak.

The stockprice chart for Shenhua Energy – the biggest player in that mining belt (probably 50-60% of total mine output) tell us that though a levelling out was in the air from as early as end-2011, the market outlook has continued to deteriorate all through 2013, and has notably failed to reverse back up through the current calendar year.

On the other side of the coin, the “other” coal boom province – Shaanxi (神木—府谷—东胜 mining areas) – has suffered no such a rout, certainly not in terms of national production share, which has held steady at about 12.5% and output at about 450 million MT/yr (physical bulk).

The good news may be that the shift reflects a rising market advantage for superior grade steam coal as a whole, meaning less per unit mining, and less toxic pollutants (esp. sulfuric and nitric acids related) coming out of the smokestack.

IMcompcoalslump wtext v 1


Curse of the Mongols: Lignite Stripmining and North China Air Pollution

(continued from previous post)

“The Mongolian Candidate” – or perhaps Polish?

… still on the subject of China’s “North by Northeast” bias in the concentration of worst-hit “smog” loci.

One thing that seems omitted from most explanations of (thus solutions for) the heavy skew of the worst-hit cities along the North and North east “frontiers”, converging more or less upon Beijing and its nesting province of Hebei, is the weight of transient pollution from adjacent – or even not-so-adjacent – population centers. Or at least under-emphasized.

A possibility too obvious? A lot of the miasma might have a kindred set of causes that have not so long ago been experienced in NW Germany (Brandenburg), where two filings to the European EPA (equivalent) have fingered Polish and Ukrainian power plants, remote though they be, as the source of strangling coal-emission smogs spilt over from electric power generation.

I quote here from http://www.env-health.org/IMG/pdf/heal_background_paper_lignite_health_brandenburg_english.pdf
“Health impacts of lignite-fired power plants The German-Polish region Lusatia (Oct.2012)”

” The [excessive and insalubrious) pollution with sulfur and nitrogen oxides is [not the result of local auto emissions, but] largely caused by the energy industry[‘s use of lignite coal: (lowest grade steam coal in terms of combustible carbon )]. Once released, both pollutants react with the atmosphere to form secondary particulate matter. Nitrogen oxides also act as precursors of ozone. Both ozone and particulate matter can be transported over very long distances and thus cause impacts outside their country of origin.” Buried within the prose are two sub-arguments: particle matters from lignite can and do hang in the air over long distances, as far away [the researchers suggest) as Chernobyl in the Ukraine. [YES, that Chernobyl!!!…); and, second, that nitrous oxide derived acid “rain-smog” and its sister by-product, ozone, are characteristically heavy components in this mix.

Tale of Two Cities: Why Beijing Smog Trumps Shanghai’s and Always Will

(Research Note: There is almost TOO MUCH on the web about China’s emissions problems. But for breadth and up-to-datedness, the master document – which I just found – is “The Great Coal Cap
China’s energy policies and the financial implications for thermal coal” available at http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.asria.org/resource/collection/1B7CBA3C-1807-4FA7-8E75-644FBCD9B6BA/CT_China_Full_Report_Final_web.pdf. I shall refer to this document as “Coal Cap 2013”).


Beijing’s “haze” or wumai 雾霾 has been part of the landscape for a long long while. Bicyclists and now even tourists have been wearing improvised gasmasks – just as blossomed during the SARS panic of (?) – for so long that they are part of the visual landscape. But Beijing is now no longer the monopolist of this miasmatic, spooky trademark. (See http://www.greenpeace.org/china/zh/news/releases/climate-energy/2014/01/PM25-ranking/), nor even anywhere near the top. Even by the compromised standards (“we are a developing nation”) of that hypertropic polity (its target is 75 micrograms/M3 of air – the WHO cut off is 25!), for the first full data-year (2013), 24 of 74 monitored cities gridmarked all across the country were in the danger zone, and not a one was in compliance with the WHO standard.

Though it must be noted that there is one cluster of cities and provinces that hover well above any rank list: 京津冀及周边地区, the so-called Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei-and-Adjacent Region (which also includes Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Shanxi). The symbolic metropoles within this region rank very high. Beijing (No. 13, at 90.1 micrograms, Tianjin (no 11) at 95.6, and Shijiazhuang (Hebei’s provincial capital) (no 2) at an unbelievable 148.5!

Even before the full results of the first year of monitoring (2013) were available, an unprecedented sense of 5-mins -to-midnight percolated through the inner core in Beijing, resulting (inter alia) in
2013年9月17日颁发了《京津冀及周边地区落实大气污染防治行动计划实施细则》program. Proof that THIS TIME concrete measures will be enforced is evident in a brand new public information video-bulletining that will not just keep everyone anywhere aware in real time of which of 74 cities scattered all across the country, but will soon also issue 48 hour warnings to those cities’ citizens who are about to encounter “red-alert” levels of particle pollution. All this is part of a State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC)’s “action plan

The “status alert” warning meant to be issued by TV looks like this:

400654824the new air wuality index expanded and translated

Though the “baseline” [yellow] contaminate levels are way above the US or global cutoff, it is at least a first step, and if it looks alarming with all that red pigment, it is meant to be so

Behind the SNG Boom: Accessing Xinjiang’s Virgin Coalfields

Beijing’s “Environments” Concerns and “Clean Coal” (CTG) Technology: Bad Air Days, or Thermo-Smog

Behind the rush into excessive SNG plant investment is a regional (not global or even pan-China) concern: to “clear the air” over the capital and in the “East” in general. Beijing has long been famous for a much circulated photograph (or set) of bicyclers pedalling down (or up) Chang’an Ave., on the flank of Tian’anmen Sq., each one wearing an improvized cloth face-wrap to keep dangerous dusts as much as possible from entering the lungs. And not just in Beijing, where dune-dusts from the Gobi have long been a presence, and still account in part for the problem. But practically in all of the major cities where Gobi sands do not reach: the pollution comes everywhere from the particulate exhausts of coal-fired power plants. It is moreover not just disaesthetic: the smog contains heavy doses of toxic sulphur and nitrogen gases from the same sources. Whistleblowers have recently concluded that exposure to thermo-electric coal pollution takes about 5 years from the lifespan of the “North” China urbanite, as compared with his “Southern” counterpart, because coal mining is heavily skewed toward the North, as therefore are those megasized coal-fired power plants built mainly to send power into the (long-distance) national grid, not (only) the nearby region.

Speaking of Smog:

Above: New York Times July 25, 2014: A tourist wore a face mask in Tiananmen Square in February as heavy air pollution shrouded Beijing. Credit Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To help get a handle on this problem – after too many years of ineffectuality – the Deregulators (name?) have decided on a toxic particulate emissions dispository trade off: bring down the level in Beijing and its sister high-smog centers in the ‘East” (+- “Northeast”), and move that class of lung-pollution “out West”:, over the horizon where maybe, because toxic emissions are still at a relatively low level (poor data to be sure) it won’t be so harmful or visually depressing. And where its price in even higher NATIONAL levels of carbon emissions (the probable if not admitted outcome) will not be so easy to track, or at least “see”, since the treck that far out west is not an easy one. (Rather like putting biochem warfare toxins manufacture on wheels, as Saddam Hussein was suspected of having planned).

Beijing bad air days vs overftrend  coal for pwoer

This seems strange given the US “clean coal” and natgas lobbies – combined as SNG or CTG promoters – have from the getgo (the 80s) promoted syngas/CTG[coal-to-gas/SNG technologies (the names can be confusing) as ways of reducing all categories of pollution (toxic, smoggic, and carbon-emittic) and making relatively cheap coal into a source of clean+cheap(er) energy.