Almost non-stop, gargantuan 145-ton trucks rumble through China's biggest open-pit coal mine, sending up clouds of soot as they dump their loads into mechanized sorters.
The black treasure has transformed this once-isolated crossroads nestled in the sand-sculpted ravines of Inner Mongolia into a bleak boomtown of nearly 300,000 people. Day and night, long and dusty trains haul out coal to electric power plants and factories in the east, fueling China's explosive growth.
Coal is big, and getting bigger. As oil and natural gas prices soar, the world is relying ever more on the cheap, black-burning mainstay of the Industrial Revolution. Mining companies are racing into Africa. Workers are laying miles of new railroad track to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
And nowhere is coal bigger than in China.
But the explosion of coal comes amid rising alarm over its dire consequences for workers and the environment. An average of 13 Chinese miners die every day in explosions, floods, fires and cave-ins. Toxic clouds of mercury and other chemicals from mining are poisoning the air and water far beyond China's borders and polluting the food chain.
So far, attempts to clean up coal have largely not worked. Technology to reduce or cut out carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and years away from widespread commercial use.
"Not very many people are talking about what do we do to live with the consequences of what's happening," said James Brock, a longtime industry consultant in the Beijing office of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "The polar bears are doomed — they're going to museums. At the end of this century the Arctic ice cap will be gone. That means a lot of water rising, not by inches but meters."
Backbone of the energy system
Burned since ancient times, coal dramatically increased in use during the Industrial Revolution, when it became fuel for the new steam engines, gas lamps and electrical generators. Worldwide demand for coal dipped at the end of the 20th century, but is now back up and projected to rise 60% by 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, according to the International Energy Agency.
Today, most coal goes to electrical power plants. In developing nations such as India, China and Africa, coal is the staple — and affordable — source of fuel with which families run their first washing machines and televisions. Worldwide electricity consumption is expected to double by 2030, the World Energy Council says.
In America, about 150 new coal-fired electrical plants are proposed over the next decade. In China, there are plans for a coal-fired power plant to go on line nearly every week. Emissions from these plants alone could nullify the cuts made by Europe, Japan and other rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol treaty, according to a report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
In a developing country like China, coal is the backbone of the energy system.
Look at the port city of Shanghai, where the bitter tang in the air is not from salty sea breeze — it's the smoke from coal-burning stoves in the suburbs used for cooking and heating. From the shacks of migrant workers on the edge of town to modern factories and skyscrapers, China's biggest city is powered by coal. Even the ultramodern Maglev railway line runs on electricity from a coal-fueled plant.