HUNGRY FOR POWER
Part 2: The human price of
By Miao Ye
Part 1: Hydropower, wave of the future?
HONG KONG - Driven to boost its economy,
coal-dependent China has undertaken a potentially
hazardous tradeoff: increasing the production of coal at
what could be the price of mine safety. It certainly
will mean more coal - and very possibly more dead
China, the world's largest coal
producer, burns more than a billion tons of coal a year
to produce 75 percent of its energy, and there is a
production shortfall - a major factor in the nation's
power famine. China has decided to increase production,
but the price could be high in terms of safety.
China's coal-mining industry is among the most
dangerous in the world and ordering higher output runs
the risk of increasing the already high rate of
coal-mine accidents. Last year, by December 21, 1,035
workers had been killed in 50 "large scale" disasters,
including explosions and cave-ins, according to the
State Administration of Work Safety. The number of
deaths in smaller accidents - possibly higher - was not
disclosed. In 2002, about 6,900 miners were killed,
according to government figures.
thousands of small mines and pits, many of them
uncertified and having abysmal safety records. Yet they
account for a major portion of coal output. At one time,
China had more than 430,000 small mines, many of them
now closed, so the task of regulation is daunting.
The government doesn't want more highly
publicized disasters, often caused by poor mine
construction, lack of safety equipment, precautions and
education, but it needs more coal.
January and September 2003, a total of 21 power grid
zones nationwide resorted to electricity blackouts to
prevent system collapse, while only those in the
northeast, a coal-mining region, reported a slight
energy surplus, according to the State Grid Corp of
China. The corporation is a large enterprise approved by
the State Council to operate power transmission,
distribution and other aspects of the electrical-power
industry and to ensure a continuous electrical supply.
The national power shortage results mainly from
the fact that coal-burning power plants, more than 70
percent of China's total installed electrical capacity,
are still 3 million tons short of the pre-set goal for
coal stores, thus limiting the required power
generation, according to the grid corporation.
Mine safety campaign short-lived
alleviate the power famine, coal producers were ordered
last autumn to increase output and guarantee the supply
for coal-fired power plants. The State Development
Planning Commission decreed on November 26 that "to ease
the demand of coal and to strike a balance between
production and safety, the most direct solution is to
increase the amount of coal production".
mines, such as those in Shanxi and Hunan provinces,
"should intensify their coal production and supply as
much as possible", the commission directed.
the same time, those coal mines still "under
rectification" - ordered to slow down, pause or close to
improve safety - were ordered to resume production as
soon as possible. The National Development and Reform
Commission (NDRC) announced an end to the short-lived
policy to "rectify the coal-mining industry".
Last August, because of frequent grievous
accidents, Premier Wen Jiabao insisted upon the overhaul
of mine safety and initiated the rectification campaign.
It lasted only a few months.
taking a tough line on improving safety, Beijing was
stunned by the resulting drastic reduction in coal
output. Most of the mining pits that have been ordered
to halt and improve safety or that have been closed for
major safety problems are small, but they are numerous
and contribute greatly to coal production.
Northern China's Shanxi province, known as
China's "coal warehouse", boasts one-third of the
country's gross coal reserves and 6,000-plus small coal
mines. Authorities estimated that its fourth-quarter
output would be cut by 40 million tons after the
shutdown of small pits following a series of three
explosions in August 2002 that claimed more than 98
Suspending small and medium-sized pits
has triggered the coal shortage and worsened the power
shortage, which could eventually hurt steel, cement and
other critical industries, even pushing some enterprises
to the brink of closure.
Despite their awareness
of the potentially devastating consequences, the
authorities in ending the rectification campaign have
chosen to ensure a sufficient power supply at the
expense of coal-mine safety.
The head of the
NDRC emphasized the importance of maintaining an
abundant coal supply during a major meeting on coal
supply on November 25. He called maintaining an adequate
coal supply a critical measure for accomplishing the
nation's economic objectives.
Coal supply as
a 'political mission'
According to development
and reform guidelines, coordination between coal
suppliers and users should be improved. All
coal-producing provinces and enterprises, especially
state-owned coal mines, must further explore their
potential and especially must fully implement their
supply contracts for 2003, the NDRC said.
Shanxi Economic Commission, a government organization
regulating the provincial economy, also convened a
meeting of coal producers and power enterprises on
December 5 and declared that maintaining and improving
coal supply and production was a "a political mission"
closely tied to economic development - even social
At the province level, the national
order to shift the focus of coal-mine operators from
work safety to increased output is very likely to mean
work overload and overtime. The rectification and safety
campaign has meant new safer equipment, such as gas
detectors and electrical wiring, better construction and
bracing for mines, better safety education for miners
and mine managers, rest periods and limited working
hours, among other improvements.
Since all small
coal pits were shut down for rectification in August
2002, Shanxi province has only four state-owned coal
corporations still running, including Shanxi Coking Co,
Lu'an Mining Corp, Jincheng Anthracite Coal Mining Group
and Pingshuo Coal Industry Corp.
production in the third quarter decreased by 34.64
million tons from the second quarter, because the closed
pits actually add up to 50 percent of the gross output
in the province. By the end of November, however, the
overall production figure had increased by a staggering
22.29 percent over the same period last year.
Lu'an, Jincheng, and Pingshuo mining
corporations all recorded output increases of more than
25 percent. Clearly, the mines were being operated at
full load and full speed to meet the national demand for
Silence at the
Virtually no public figure has publicly
criticized the speedup, and the apparent tradeoff
between safety and output.
According to the
Shanxi Administration of Coal Mine Safety, half of the
closed mines have resumed production since late October,
when the pace of safety inspections increased, and more
were deemed qualified and reopened by the end of the
Some Chinese officials predict that the
price of coal will continue to rise for some time, and
then may fall as numerous small mines are reopened,
The fear that output might
decrease and stall the economy has prevailed over the
initially proposed top-to-bottom overhaul of Shanxi
province's coal-mining operations.
On the other
hand, Premier Wen, chairing State Council meetings last
June 18 and August 27, said specifically that coal-mine
safety administration should be strengthened,
rectification advanced and safety rules and regulations
In 2004 the central
government will appropriate 2.2 billion yuan (US$265
million) for coal-mine safety, after an earlier total
injection of 4 billion yuan in 2002 and 2003. The state
also is developing a new mechanism to guarantee
sufficient funding for mine safety.
unexpected "power famine" - and the resulting need to
increase output - disrupted Premier Wen's plan and call
for safety. Whether the output increase will be achieved
on the altar of more casualties remains to be seen.
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