China’s ambitious plans to prevent climate-wrecking methane from slipping out of its coal mines and into the atmosphere have so far proven ineffectual, according to a study of satellite data recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
Since 2006, “recognizing the outsized influence that methane has on the climate,” China’s government has “required that all coal companies drain mines of methane prior to coal production and declared that coal mines cannot legally operate without such methane capture systems,” InsideClimate News reports. “A subsequent policy required that coal mines either use or flare the methane.”
And the gas could certainly be used, said John Hopkins University environmental health and engineer professor Scot Miller, lead author of the Nature Communications study. “If the country were able to use all of the methane currently emitted from its mines, Miller estimates it could cover the electricity needs of 36 million people,” InsideClimate writes.
Miller and his colleagues found that inadequate pipeline infrastructure, and the remote and mountainous location of many of its coal mines, are two of the challenges that could keep China from tapping into the power of any captured methane.
But it will need to be captured first. “In its twelfth five-year-plan, which set out policies for 2011-15, the Chinese government aimed to recover and utilize 5.6 million tonnes of methane from coal mining,” Carbon Brief reports. “By 2020, it aims to recover 13.2 million tonnes.”
But the new study shows how far Beijing is from its 2020 target, noting that emissions actually rose “at a rate of 1.1 million tonnes a year between 2010 and 2015,” Carbon Brief states.
Miller stressed that the modelling used to analyze the satellite data discounted other possible sources for the spike in methane emissions “Between 2010 and 2015, coal mining in China increased enormously,” he told Carbon Brief, “while rice production and the number of cows did not.”
The study also highlighted “an exemption from rules requiring companies to capture the methane and either flare or use the gas if methane made up less than 30% of the total gas emitted,” InsideClimate adds. Miller and his team cited “anecdotal evidence” gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “that suggests that mine operators may be diluting drained gas to circumvent the requirement.”
Whether through loopholes or evasion, the fact that China’s coal mines continue to leak methane is very bad news for the global climate, Miller told ICN, noting that “methane emissions from China’s coal operations are roughly equivalent to 41% of CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants.”
“Even small emissions reductions from a country like China could have an absolutely enormous impact on global greenhouse gases,” he added.