E & E
Reporter, Climate Wire
Nov 04, 2011
HOHHOT, China -- It was late spring, and armed police were
barring Inner Mongolia University students from leaving
campus to protest the death of a herder run over by a coal
truck. Students amassed in towns across the province to
condemn coal companies they accused of riding roughshod over
livestock grazing land.
wanted to go to the streets, too!" recounted Tegusbayar, a
professor of Mongolian culture. The presence of Chinese
security forces kept his students at bay, and dampened the
potential for protests to turn violent at the end of May.
professor sipped a steaming cup of Mongolian-style milk tea
and slowed his speech. "It's a good solution in the end,"
Tegusbayar said of the peaceful outcome. "But the main
issues are still there."
protesters were killed attempting to block
trucks driving into traditional grazing lands in
Inner Mongolia. The homicides have created
rising tensions as a once-nomadic people grapple
with their new life in the center of China's
coal country. Photo by Joel Kirkland.
Tegusbayar, who uses a single Mongolian name, lives in a
hoarder's paradise. Floor-to-ceiling library shelves carry
books and academic journals that date back to the 1970s,
when as a 24-year-old student he left the grasslands for the
city to study the history and legends of indigenous Mongols
living in northern China. Their long history is crammed into
his small flat in Hohhot, where living space is getting
this provincial capital on the southern edge of the Gobi
Desert, Tegusbayar described an ethnic Mongolian minority
deeply at odds with China's industrial policy. Inner
Mongolia became China's top coal producer two years ago and
is on track to provide about one-quarter of domestic supply
by 2015. Its sprawling open-cast mines surpass the coal
seams underlying Shanxi province, where the most accessible
coal deposits have been depleted and where the government
has closed unsafe mines.
exploitation, gas drilling and metals mining across the
province supply energy to a national economy that expanded
another 9.1 percent in the third quarter. Industrial
production increased 13.8 percent in September. Yet the
mining powerhouse is also the antithesis of another Beijing
policy goal, which is to curb smog-forming and
cancer-causing pollutants, cap coal consumption and limit
power plant emissions tied to global warming.
There's also a cost to the economy. Thousands of miles of
proposed rail construction is on the table to ship more coal
from remote corners of Inner Mongolia and the West to
China's fast-developing interior. Transport bottlenecks and
cost pressures to keep supply in line with demand have
pushed up the price of China's dominant source of energy for
power plants and steel mills.
rail lines will have to be built if China hopes to exploit
the estimated 2.2 trillion tons of coal reserves in its far
western Xinjiang province and 7.5 billion metric tons of
coal in Mongolia's Tavan Tolgoi coal field.
place sparsely populated and off the beaten path for China's
urban dwellers, coal trucks clog Inner Mongolia's east-west
highway leading to a seaport on the Bohai Sea northeast of
Beijing. Pollution darkens the air. China's newest King Coal
is a step behind national aspirations to transition from an
export-driven, coal-dependent factory economy to a stable
nomads rode, coal trucks roll
Tegusbayar and other Mongols lament the loss of their
pastoral traditions to industrialization. They say China's
central government has spent the better part of 50 years
repopulating this vast semi-autonomous region covering
450,000 square miles along China's border with Mongolia and
Russia. Mongols make up less than one-fifth of Inner
Mongolia's 24 million people, most of whom are Han Chinese.
Tension tied to coal, lead and copper mines hasn't become
the bloody ethnic conflict roiling in China's Muslim
Northwest. It doesn't have the international appeal of
Tibet's struggle. But Inner Mongolia's mostly poor and
Buddhist minority is more restive than it's been since the
early 1980s, during the first years of China's economic
reforms. Young ethnic Mongols are cloaking anger about
injustices against their parents and grandparents in the
rising tide of economic and environmental grievances
spreading across China.
Activists point to China's wild exploitation of fossil fuels
and metals under Inner Mongolia's grasslands, and to the
forced migration of people off the windswept steppe into
cities and housing units to make way for mines. Grasslands
where nomadic Mongols lived out their lives for centuries
are dust bowls now. Cracked ground dulls a landscape where
natural lakes used to rest. Landowners are dipping deeper
into their wells for water.
like a bomb," Tegusbayar explained, referring to ponds built
by metals mines to store wastewater laced with toxic
residue. "The government knows about this issue, but they
have a different objective."
September, as tensions cooled after the spring protests,
Tegusbayar's easy laugh and patient optimism softened the
outrage that rolled off his tongue in a staccato drumbeat. A
graduate student kept his teacup filled and listened
intently. "We have to wait for political reform," Tegusbayar
said, pushing aside his thin white hair.
of that waiting game is over.
Tensions and 2 homicides
Demonstrations in May were sparked after a 35-year-old
ethnic Mongolian herder, who went by the name Mergen, tried
to block a convoy of coal trucks from crossing grazing
lands. He was killed doing so, and according to activists,
was run over while truck drivers spouted ethnic slurs.
spread. Students organized. Police sealed off schools and
shut down protests in Hohhot, the city of Xilinhot and rural
outposts where miners and farmers had collided in the past.
Police arrested dozens in May and June. Coal and lead mine
pollution led to protests throughout the summer. In August,
China executed the truck driver who killed Mergen.
Tensions sparked again late last month, according to the New
York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information
Center, as the result of another death in Uushin Banner, the
county around the coal-rich city of Ordos. A herder and
activist, Zorigt, died Oct. 20 after his motorcycle collided
with an oil transport truck he had been trying to stop from
crossing grazing land.
rights group blasted out emails and messages on social media
sites after Zorigt's death. It urged "Mongolian students
from all colleges, high schools, middle schools and
elementary schools" to ignore a ban on marching and call on
provincial government officials to "fulfill their promises
to protect herders' rights and regulate the mining
Slogans and banners should make their case, it suggested:
"Justice for Zorigt"; "Punish the Criminals"; "Defend
Herders' Rights"; "Protect Grasslands."
Chinese authorities are urging students not to overreact to
a traffic accident in comments to state-run media outlets
and postings on Mongolian-script instant messaging boards.
Online chatter about the killing of Zorigt has gotten
louder, the rights group reported, prompting authorities on
Oct. 27 to close a handful of Internet sites and chat rooms,
including Boljoo, a popular instant messaging service and
the Mongolian people mention human rights or independence,
then the Chinese government will crack down," said Enghebatu
Togochog, director of the New York rights group, in an
interview with ClimateWire before October's unrest.
The peaceful protests have been targeting energy production.
"This is a wise choice of fighting," he said. "You can't
fight them with a military, so you have to be smart."
Mongolia's provincial government has said it would study the
mining industry's effect on the grasslands and the
livelihoods of local residents. All the while, the
consolidation of China's mining sector, and its partnerships
with power producers and chemical makers, is pumping money
into the region.
Historical inequalities are colliding with China's
unrelenting energy needs for the production of steel,
concrete, chemicals and power. "They say for every three
light bulbs, one is a result of energy from the Mongolian
grasslands," Togochog said. "So the policy will not change."
and chaotic legacy keeps economy rising
Hohhot, a longtime Mongolian dissident and prominent writer
said prospects are dim for China's Mongolians who eke out
lives herding sheep and cattle. "They have no grasslands, no
farmland," Naranbilig said through an interpreter. He goes
by the single name. "If we cultivate the land, we can't earn
Naranbilig and a couple of guests sat in the corner booth of
an empty restaurant next to a young man he called a taxi
driver, who sat silently. Activists say he has been under
tight surveillance since being jailed briefly in 2008 as
part of a broad roundup ahead of the Olympic Games.
Beijing and local officials with strong incentives to quell
unrest are reacting to merging social issues: an unsettling
gap between rich and poor, fear among young people that
future employment is not guaranteed, and an increasing
number of environmental protests.
drive under this welcoming sign for the Shang
Wan coal mine outside of the city of Ordos. It's
operated by China's largest coal producer,
Shenhua Group. Photo by Joel Kirkland.
August, the government closed a chemical factory in the
northeastern city of Dalian after thousands of protesters
clashed with police over concerns about its safety. A month
later, villagers in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai,
forced the closure of a solar panel plant they accused of
dumping hazardous chemicals in a nearby river.
Mongolia's industrial hub of Baotou is among the largest
producers of rare-earth elements used by clean energy
technology companies, but the industry's dirty and chaotic
legacy is a lightning rod for environmental protest.
Inner Mongolia, villagers are using microblogs to complain
about their depleted water wells. Sinking water levels
around Ordos have forced villagers to carry potable water
from sources more than 10 miles away, wrote one villager
Sounding like every bit the civil society that might protest
a gas well in Pennsylvania or road construction in Colorado,
Inner Mongolia's online dwellers complain about electricity
cables being cut, noisy coal trucks and mining explosions
too close to home.
and poor occupy the same space. Coal trucks whiz by near
coal mines and plants operated by China's richest coal
company, Shenhua. Standing in the middle of an intersection
in September, a man swept coal dust with a broom made of
action; a U.S. company wants in
China's coal production of 3.2 billion metric tons in 2010
accounted for almost half of the world's coal, according to
the U.S. Energy Information Administration. An EIA analysis
showed that China's coal production increased 188 percent in
the past decade. U.S. coal production has been almost flat.
Production in Inner Mongolia has been bounding upward by
double-digit percentages, and it produced 782 million tons
of coal in 2010, according to China's state-run media. The
region has more than 700 billion tons of coal locked away in
reserve, a source that's attracting attention from Western
coal companies elbowing into Asia's coal market.
Louis-based Peabody Energy, the largest U.S. producer, has
made profit potential in the Asian market a big piece of its
message to investors concerned about the flagging U.S. coal
and power market. Its executives have spent much of the past
year forging relationships with China and filling out its
Asian offices. They call it "Project Dragon."
China's net coal imports hit an all-time high in September,
according to Peabody's data, and power generation increased
20 percent compared to 2010.
China's desert frontier, Peabody is working with the
Xinjiang regional government to develop a
50-million-ton-a-year surface mine. "The West is growing
from 100 million tons in 2010 to as much as 1 billion tons
by 2025," said Peabody spokesman Vic Svec. "That kind of
growth essentially means an entire U.S. coal industry in one
province in western China."
third-quarter earnings call last month, Peabody President
Richard Navarre said the government has "5,000 people and
several hundred drill rigs" at work exploring the field and
tallying reserve data.
January, Peabody and China Huaneng Group, the largest power
generator in China, agreed to develop a 1,200-megawatt
high-efficiency power plant adjacent to a coal mine in
eastern Inner Mongolia. That project is awaiting permits. To
the north, in the independent country of Mongolia, Peabody
is waiting for approval from the Mongolian government to
develop the giant Tavan Tolgoi deposit of steel-making coal.
September, the Mongolian Security Council rejected a mining
plan that would split development rights in three ways among
Shenhua, Peabody and a Russian-Mongolian consortium. It's
caught up in political wrangling about the terms of the deal
and other potential Asian investors.
been selected as one of the finalists and continue to be a
moving target because of geopolitical issues," Navarre said.
modern office building in Ordos, Sun Zheyu, Party Committee
office director for regional coal giant Yitai Group Co.,
said the capacity required to build out China's network of
rails and roads for transporting coal is significant. The
goal, however, is to produce as much as 50 percent of the
nation's coal-fired electricity at plants located near the
mouths of the coal mines.
Instead of hauling black rocks by trucks, trains and tankers
over great distances, China energy planners want to send
more of it to cities in the form of ready-made electricity.
Meanwhile, coal haulers from Australia and Indonesia, and
possibly the United States, are investing in infrastructure
designed to supply Chinese ports and take pressure off the
Coal-by-wire is a likely scenario in Xinjiang, said Richard
Morse, a Stanford University coal researcher. The coal
frontier is more than 1,000 miles from China's eastern
industrial hubs, and mine-mouth power and chemical plants
will keep skyrocketing coal costs in check.
"There's a general push to develop a lot of these
facilities," Morse said. "The rule of thumb is that rail has
had a hard time keeping pace with coal production."
China's attitude about coal has been a moving target. Its
12th five-year plan plainly envisions cutting coal's piece
of the energy pie down by capping energy consumption of 4
billion tons of coal equivalent in 2015. It envisions an
increase in non-fossil fuel energy such as hydropower,
nuclear and wind power to 11.4 percent of total energy.
accounted for 72 percent of China's energy mix in 2010, and
by controlling energy use and boosting clean energy
investment, the government says it can shrink coal's slice
of the pie to 63 percent by 2015.
high price of steel-making coal, which is selling at close
to $300 a metric ton, is also driving public policy
decisions. The National Energy Administration in Beijing is
reportedly looking at ways to keep a lid on coal wildcatters
in the high-flying market.
Additional reporting for this story was done by Lei Yang.