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China turns to methane

BEIJING, Nov 27 – China, a massive consumer of fossil fuels and coal in particular, is trying to modernise its mines by containing emissions of methane and turning the toxic gas into a source of much-needed energy.

Authorities in Beijing have made methane capture a government priority both in the name of safety, as the gas is responsible for many of the deadly blasts in China\’s dangerous mines, and environmental protection.

China is the world\’s top emitter of greenhouse gases and the extraction of coal, the source of more than 70 percent of the Asian giant\’s energy, accounts for a significant proportion of those emissions.

Beijing — which has come under mounting pressure to commit to deeper emissions cuts, especially in the run-up to climate change talks in Copenhagen next month — is now pouring millions of dollars into clean coal technology.

"The government grants about 300 million dollars a year in subsidies to mines that set up methane capture units," says Huang Shengchu, director of the Chinese Coal Information Institute in Beijing, a government-linked body.

Mines with such units are cleared of dangerous gas before coal is extracted; the siphoned-off methane is transported through pipelines to power stations where, unlike carbon dioxide, it can be recycled to produce electricity.

Despite the clear benefits of such technology, not all involved in the industry have been converted to the idea of going green.

"Small private structures are reluctant to implement Beijing\’s policies," Huang noted.

But companies that specialise in clean coal technology say they are optimistic that mining firms will get on board.

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"This industry is undergoing a huge modernisation," said Dave McKinnon, project manager for Australian firm Valley Longwall International.

His company has been selling its computer-assisted drilling guidance system for three years in northern Shanxi province, the centre of China\’s coal-producing heartlands.

The cutting-edge equipment detects methane emissions and, according to the firm, allows for near-total capture.

"Most of my customers buy our technology because the safety standards are more and more strict," McKinnon said.

For years, authorities have been trying to improve safety in the country\’s coal mines, which are among the most dangerous in the world, with standards often ignored in the quest for profits and the drive to meet surging demand.

Official figures show that more than 3,200 workers died in collieries last year, but independent labour groups say the actual figure could be much higher, as many accidents are covered up in order to avoid costly mine shutdowns.

At least 104 miners were killed in a huge blast at a mine in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang last Saturday, China\’s worst mining disaster in two years.

Traditionally, methane has been extracted from mines through ventilation systems to prevent high concentrations of the gas in the shafts, which could poison workers and eventually lead to explosions.

But that method allowed the gas to escape into the atmosphere, rather than be put to positive use.

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"Methane represents only one or two percent of the consumption of primary energy in China, but it could become quite important in some areas," said Pamela Franklin, of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

In Shanxi, the city of Jincheng stands as a shining example of the benefits of methane capture: since last year, a major power station has been operating there, fed by methane from a nearby mine.

Huang says the 45-million-dollar plant — capable of continuously producing 120 megawatts of power — is one of the most significant of its kind in the world. Taxis and buses in the city also run on methane.

Last year, 4.3 billion cubic metres of methane were captured in China, an increase of 26 percent from 2007, according to Ming Yang, an official at the International Energy Agency who co-authored a report on the potential for methane use here.

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