Back in Beijing

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Beijing in summer is hot and a bit less polluted than in winter. Here at Tsinghua University. Photo/Keith Schneider

BEIJING — On a hot morning here in China’s capital, the air is grey and the sky dark with pollution. It’s my seventh trip to China and the evidence of industrial overreach is so readily apparent. I’m here to participate in a speaking and convening event organized by Jennifer Turner, my colleague and director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.

It is five days in Beijing, then I fly to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, to report on energy, food and water for Circle of Blue. It looks to be a busy season of international travel from now until year-end. In September it looks as though I’ll be back in Qatar for reporting on oil and sustainability. Then to Beijing for a speaking tour. Then to India for a month. The year closes and the new year opens with a trip to Italy – Rome, Sicily, and Malta.

There is no Facebook or Twitter access here in China, so keep tabs here on ModeShift. I plan to be active over the next 16 days.

— Keith Schneider

Hope For China’s Deep Shale Gas Development Impeded by Technical Reality

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Wei-201H3, the first deep shale, horizontally-drilled, hydrofracked natural gas well in China. Photo/Keith Schneider

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are climbing, in large measure because of China’s production and combustion of more than 3 billion metric tons of coal annually, or nearly four times as much coal as the United States produces and burns. One of the solutions — though it is attracting rigorous opposition in the U.S. — is replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas.

Even with protests over fracking, natural gas is replacing coal in the U.S., where technical advances in drilling and production technology are yielding a motherlode of oil and gas from the country’s deep shale reserves.

With technical assistance from the Obama administration, China is busy probing its deep shale natural gas reserves, too. Last year I investigated how well Chinese shale gas development was proceeding, spending more than a week in Sichuan Province, where much of the new development is occurring. My conclusion: China’s hope to replace some of its climate-changing coal production with natural gas is just that, a big hope. Impediments abound. My report is part of Circle of Blue’s path-breaking Choke Point: China project.

XINCHANGZHEN, China— Liu Zhongqi’s mud and brick home is set in a cluster of hillside houses in the village of Lao Chang, a serene half-circle of settlement on the west side of this misty Sichuan Province valley.

A few steps away is a flooded paddy, about half the size of an American front lawn, where Liu raises rice. Next to that is a slightly larger and deeper pond where he produces fish. And just beyond Liu’s fishpond is something very new here and potentially momentous: Wei-201H3, one of China’s first horizontally drilled and hydro-fracked deep shale natural gas well.

The completion of Wei-201H3 in January 2012 — and the earlier development of two other deep shale wells, drilled within a half-kilometer of Liu’s home — introduced more than the sounds of diesel engines and other industrial dissonance. The new wells, Lao Chang residents told Circle of Blue, have wrecked the pastoral iconography of this valley, a place where repetition and water wove together a centuries-old rural mosaic of green fields and dark ponds.

“They came here one day,” Liu said. “It’s been hard. Very hard.”

The same can be said for China’s nascent shale gas industry. In November 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral agreement to deploy U.S. expertise to develop China’s deep shale gas reserves and Chinese capital to finance the much more mature American shale gas sector. The bilateral pact, formalized in a Beijing ceremony that attracted global media attention, also spurred Chinese and Western energy companies to develop partnerships and dispatch crews and rigs to drill experimental deep shale natural gas wells in bucolic and densely populated Sichuan valleys like this one.

The goal here — and in half a dozen other energy-rich provinces — is two fold:

1. Reach a national production target of 6.5 billion cubic meters (229 billion cubic feet) of shale gas by 2015.

2. Duplicate the American shale gas boom.

The hope is that by increasing shale gas production, China can begin to wean itself off of coal, as the United States has begun to do. Since 2005, tens of thousands of U.S. deep shale gas wells, drilled in a dozen states, have driven U.S. energy costs down, fueled manufacturing job growth, reduced reliance on coal as a fuel source for generating electricity, and helped U.S. climate-changing carbon emissions to drop to the lowest levels in a generation.

“We’re just starting to understand what we need to develop shale gas,” said Zhang Mi, chairman and president of the HongHua Group, a manufacturer of drilling rigs based in Chengdu, a city of 14 million residents about 140 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lao Chang . “Exploration is in the experimental stage. From my perspective, Sichuan is China’s Texas for shale gas development.”

But many of Sichuan’s field engineers, analysts, industry executive, and resource managers say there is convincing evidence that China’s shale gas industry is developing at a much slower rate than either Chinese or American leadership had anticipated — in other words, it is hard to see how China expects to even come close to meeting its 2015 production goal. China’s shale gas sector is buffeted by uncertainty about the quality of China’s shale reserves, concerns about scarce freshwater supplies, competition from other energy sources, the potential safety threats posed by a byproduct poison gas, and emerging civic distrust. As a result shale gas development has yet to move any faster than a very slow crawl.

See the entire article here at Circle of Blue.

— Keith Schneider

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Lui Zhongqi, with his wife, near the deep shale well that he says is disrupting his life, and harming his food production.Photo/Keith Schneider

China Is Whipping Boy In Presidential Debates

In You Yi, site of China’s largest farm, the biggest and most modern American tractors are displayed as evidence of the commitment to match U.S. farm productivity. Photo/Keith Schneider

It’s not like the Chinese aren’t listening when President Obama and Mitt Romney accuse them of stealing American jobs, subsidizing exports to the U.S., and cheating on the real value of the yuan.

They hear the critique and they’re annoyed for good reasons.

But if the president and Romney really want to address China as a threat to the U.S., they ought to be talking about a different set of issues, like the resource-wasting, pollution free-for-all that is testing global resources, wrecking the global environment, and threatening public health in and outside China. More on that later, but see this article for Circle of Blue that introduces these ideas in our new project on water, energy, and grain that we started to post this week.

On Chinese indignation: Last month I was the dinner guest of Lei Zhongmin, a professor of economics and environmental management at the Qingdao Institute of Science and Technology. At age 60 Lei is taller than most Chinese men, slim, dark-haired, gracious, and intellectual. He’s taught environmental and energy policy and management for three decades, and is among the institute’s most prominent and respected faculty members.

Lei, though, treated our dinner as an opportunity to lecture an American journalist. His complaint: the distasteful way that China is treated as a scapegoat, a nation to be feared and distrusted, during presidential elections. “Why,” he asked, “do they do that?”
Continue reading “China Is Whipping Boy In Presidential Debates”

Urumqi’s Bus Rapid Transit Lines Are Steps In Right Direction

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Urumqi, the largest city in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, last year opened a 42-kilometer bus rapid transit network, fueled by natural gas and composed of three lines and 55 station stops. It’s a beautiful thing in a traffic-jammed city with risky levels of air pollution. Photo/Keith Schneider

URUMQI — The first time we boarded the bright orange articulated Line 3 buses of this desert city’s year-old Bus Rapid Transit network, we got lost. As an American writer intensely interested in new forms of urban transportation I assumed that the BRT system here was like the ones I’d ridden in Cleveland and Pittsburgh — a single line delivering passengers point to point.

Wrong. Last year Urumqi opened China’s newest, and one of its most expansive BRT systems. There are three interconnected lines, spanning 42 kilometers and 55 station stops, that encompass much of this restless city, a 24-hour swarm of cars in crowded streets. We backtracked that first day, and ended up taking a cab a short ride to the hotel. Every other time we rode the BRT, for 1 RMB or just over 16 cents a ride, we hit every station we needed to.

Ever since Curitiba, Brazil opened the world’s first BRT system in 1974, Bus Rapid Transit has been installed in over 100 cities worldwide. There are 30 lines now in 19 U.S. states, and many more are planned or under construction, including a 9.6-mile line in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here in China, though, cities didn’t just build single lines; they built BRT networks. Freed from the democratic give and take of debate about costs and subsidies and NIMBYism and all manner of other impediments characteristic of transit planning in the United States, China pressed ahead with some of the best BRT systems in the world. Since the first Chinese BRT network was opened in Kunming in 1999, China built 13 others, including the newest and one of the largest here.

Urumqi, like other Chinese cities expanding at rates never before seen in history, needed no other justification for its BRT system other than as a new means for moving people around a modernizing city smothered in traffic. City planners, apparently anticipating BRT, designed major tree-shaded avenues that are eight to 12 lanes wide.

The two center lanes, dedicated solely to buses, are separated from the others by white metal barriers. Modern glass and stainless steel station stops are spread about every half-kilometer. Buses are so numerous the wait time typically is less than a minute. There is really nothing rapid about buses that move at a top speed of about 55 kilometers an hour. But because of the startling levels of traffic day and night the BRT delivered us to destinations at least as fast, and often significantly more quickly than riding in a taxi.

What also intrigued me about the BRT system here was how it exemplified the modest but still gathering momentum of Urumqi’s work to be more innovative in contending with the limits to its development, particularly those that focus on the contest between the rapidly expanding population and industrial sectors, and the tight water supplies and filthy air.

Continue reading “Urumqi’s Bus Rapid Transit Lines Are Steps In Right Direction”

China’s Marine Aquaculture Shellfish Industry: Really Big and Apparently Safe

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On a still Aoshawei Bay, lines of marine shellfish bouys stretch shore to shore. Photo/J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue

QINGDAO — At dawn the surface of Aoshawei Bay is a grid of black spots, line after line, straight as the rays of the rising sun, from one shoreline to the other. The spots are bouys that support the submerged platforms and thick netting that grow scallops and clams, oysters and mussels, and enclose immense mats of edible kelp. The bouys, tended by fishermen in wooden boats gray and weathered by decades of use, are the most visible features of an aquatic food factory that employs thousands and feeds millions in this province of 96 million people.

And as my colleague Carl Ganter and I learned during an eye-opening interview with Yi Zhou, one of China’s top marine ecologists, Aoshawei Bay is an especially productive pearl in a string of clean Pacific coast bays that form the tidal infrastructure for Shandong Province’s marine aquaculture industry, the largest producer of farmed shellfish on Earth.

“Thirteen million tons a year,” exclaimed Yi Zhou, a professor of marine aquaculture and ecology at the Institute of Oceanology, a research unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences located on a shoreline campus here. “Chinese marine aquaculture produces 13 million tons of shellfish a year, more than any other country. Seventy percent is produced in Shandong.”

Yi Zhou explained this to us in a second floor conference room overlooking one of Qingdao’s broad sand beaches and in the lovely late afternoon light. Carl, a photographer and co-founder of Circle of Blue, has been to China 10 times. This is my sixth trip in less than two years. Both of us are accustomed to China’s off-the-chart scale and dimension in almost everything. So 10 million tons of shellfish produced in nearby coastal waters, including this city’s own Laoshan Bay, wasn’t surprising.

What came next was.

“Is it safe to eat?” I asked.

Zhou expected the question. “Yes,” he said. “Very safe.”

In the next 45 minutes, and calmly responding to a fusillade of questions, Zhou explained the gathered facts, largely confirmed by science journals and other Qingdao environmental professors, about production practices that have helped make Shandong’s marine aquaculture industry an apparent model of local food production that is ecologically sustainable and safe. Continue reading “China’s Marine Aquaculture Shellfish Industry: Really Big and Apparently Safe”