If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Conciliatory Words From A Chinese Coal Giant

Shenhua addresses Greenpeace’s concerns that a coal-to-fuels project harms the environment

by Jean-François Tremblay
May 26, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 21

Photo of a Shenhua group plant processing coal into fuels in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China.
Credit: Greenpeace
Greenpeace claims this coal liquefaction plant in Inner Mongolia uses too much water in an arid part of China.

State-owned Chinese companies rarely engage the public, respond to media requests, or divulge more information about their operations than the law requires. But Chinese coal giant Shenhua may be an exception. The company responded to Greenpeace after the environmental group criticized its practices in Inner Mongolia and claims to be changing its ways.

Last July, Greenpeace issued a report about a Shenhua plant in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, that liquefies coal into transportation fuels and chemical feedstocks. Greenpeace claims that Shenhua was overusing groundwater in this arid part of China and discharging contaminated wastewater.

Within days of the report’s publication, Shenhua officials met with Greenpeace staff. Last month, Shenhua told Greenpeace that it has taken concrete steps to reduce emissions and stop using groundwater in the region.

Deng Ping, senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia and the leader of the group’s Shenhua project, says she is surprised that the firm decided to suspend groundwater extraction. “I thought it would have been much more difficult, to be honest,” she says.

China has long used coal to produce fertilizers and plastics to a greater extent than have other countries (C&EN, April 28, page 18). Using newer technologies, Shenhua and other Chinese firms are building plants that also use coal to produce olefins and fuels. The plant in Ordos, opened in 2013, can turn out 1.2 million metric tons of fuels and feedstocks annually. And Shenhua hopes to increase its coal liquefaction operations severalfold in coming years.

But the process is water-intensive. The Greenpeace report describes how, owing to a lack of water in Ordos, Shenhua built a 60-mile pipeline to draw water from under the ground in the Haolebaoji region of the Mu Us Desert. Since Shenhua started extracting water there, Greenpeace claims, all artesian wells in the area have gone dry, vegetation is disappearing, and a major lake has shrunk. Greenpeace also estimates that Shenhua discharges nearly 5 tons of contaminated water in Ordos for every ton of fuel it produces.

Researching the report entailed making more than 10 trips to Inner Mongolia, Greenpeace’s Deng says. Some of the locations where she and her colleagues collected data were patrolled by Shenhua guards, she recalls. “Outsiders were forbidden to go near, so we could only wait until dark.”

After it was published, the Greenpeace report received scant coverage in the Chinese media, Deng says. And yet the coal giant almost immediately sought to meet with the group to discuss the findings. Shortly after the meeting, the company acknowledged that its plant had illegally discharged contaminated water in Ordos.

Last month, Shenhua managers met with Greenpeace again. The conglomerate promised to stop the water extraction and to find alternative sources as early as this year. Shenhua also said it had fitted the Ordos site with equipment allowing it to recycle 98% of the water used there. Water containing high concentrations of pollutants will be treated in evaporation ponds, Shenhua further pledged.

Shenhua officials did not explain why they were taking the Greenpeace report so seriously, but Deng says government officials and academic researchers probably saw the findings. “There must have been some pressure from these decisionmakers,” she speculates.

But ultimately, she conjectures, Shenhua may have decided to stop drawing water from the Haolebaoji region simply because the firm will soon run the area dry and have to look elsewhere for water anyway.

Contacted by phone, a Beijing-based manager responsible for health and safety at Shenhua’s coal liquefaction operation said he could not comment to the media. But he referred C&EN to an article that appeared earlier this month in Southern Weekend, a Guangzhou-based publication. The article, which is critical of Shenhua in Ordos, reports that the president of the operation was surprised by Greenpeace’s allegations last summer and believed it was important to address them.

Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental watchdog, says it is not uncommon for companies in China to respond to concerns raised by nongovernmental organizations. His group routinely names and shames polluters on its website in an effort to get them to mend their ways. But the companies that react to criticism tend to be those that supply foreign clients or are trying to raise money from the capital markets. Getting a reaction from a large state-owned company is relatively rare, he says.

“It’s highly positive that Shenhua tries to face this issue rather than resist or dodge,” Ma says.

It remains to be seen whether the coal giant will live up to the promises it made to Greenpeace to reform its operations in Ordos. “This is not completed yet,” Deng says. “We will keep watching.”



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.