China mined a record 2.4 billion tons of coal in 2006, up 8.1% from a year earlier. But even that can't keep boilers and blast furnaces stoked in an economy growing more than 10% a year. So China became a net coal importer for the first time this year. While Chinese authorities are closing down older, heavily polluting plants, they can't keep up with a massive expansion in urban housing and industry and the coal that feeds them.
China is the world's biggest consumer and producer of coal, but it's far from the only one. U.S. coal production hit a record 1.2 billion tons last year, according to the National Mining Association, and is forecast by the government to rise 50% by 2030. Yet the United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the required emissions cuts could slow economic growth.
For another measure, look at the ticker on the website of St. Louis-based Peabody Coal Co., the world's largest coal mining company, which tracks its growing sales second by second. Last year: 248 million tons sold. For 2007: On track for up to 275 million tons.
China's Shenhua Group is hot on Peabody's heels. On one day in June, a record 111 Shenhua coal trains left its mines in north-central China, the company said.
Rising demand can be met because coal is the Earth's most abundant fossil fuel, with reserves expected to last some 250 years — far longer than forecasts for petroleum. And whether in China, India, the United States or Europe, coal is available at home, away from the instability of the Middle East.
"The U.S. has under its own soil at least a 200-year supply of coal. China has a very long-term supply of coal," Steve Papermaster, co-chairman of the energy committee of President Bush's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, told a recent conference in Shanghai.
For several years, cleaner burning natural gas appeared a promising substitute. But soaring prices and worries over the reliability of Mideast and Russian supplies have dimmed the promise of that option. Alternatives such as wind and solar power are getting cheaper but still can't compete with coal.
Most experts believe that whatever the costs to the environment and public health, coal is with us to stay.
"The question is not about putting a line through coal and saying we're not going to use it," said Milton Catelin, chief executive of the London-based World Coal Institute, an industry association. "There's a future for coal. The developing world will have to use coal. They need cheap energy to get ahead."
Clean tech's daunting costs
The solution Catelin and others in the industry are pushing is clean technology, although they admit they are late to the game.
"The decade 1997-2007 was a lost decade" for clean coal technology, Catelin conceded. "We should have done much more. Now we're playing catch-up."
The need is clear. In the provincial steel town of Baotou, trucks heaped high with coal rumble into Shenhua yards, dumping their loads into huge sieves for sorting into various grades of quality and size. Wind gusts whip black soot into the sky, thickening the layer of smog from the city's smelters.
The U.S. and Chinese governments are subsidizing the development of technology that converts coal to a clean-burning gas before it is burned. But such plants still emit ample amounts of carbon dioxide, notes Qian Jingjing, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and co-author of the report "Coal in a Changing Climate."