But for the Chinese government, the rewards could be worth the risk. Despite its 2005 IPO of some assets, Shenhua remains a largely state-owned firm, and the direct-liquefaction plant serves a critical state interest: energy security. “No matter how big the cost, Shenhua will build it,” says Zhou Zhijie, a gasification expert at East China University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Clean Coal Technology in Shanghai. “China’s government will support this project until the liquid flows.”
Of course, if the new plant works, Shenhua stands to earn a substantial profit. The company predicts that its synthetic oil will turn a profit at roughly $30 a barrel, though many analysts say $45 is more realistic. (The U.S. Department of Energy’s most recent price forecast predicts that crude oil will dip to $47 a barrel in 2014, then climb steadily to $57 a barrel in 2030.) Hedging its bets, Shenhua has also entered a preliminary agreement with partners Shell and Sasol concerning several similar-sized or bigger Fischer-Tropsch fuel plants in Northern China, which would start up in 2012.
Shenhua’s Chinese coal competitors, too, are already breaking ground on their versions of coal-to-fuel plants. The Yankuang coal group, the second-largest coal producer in China, is planning a Fischer-Tropsch fuel plant near Erdos that will use a proprietary gasifier and catalyst.
Beyond the risks inherent in the large-scale deployment of unproven technology, the gasification building boom also is an environmental gamble. Indeed, what may ultimately check China’s coal-to-oil ambitions is water. China’s Coal Research Institute estimates that Shenhua’s plant will consume 10 tons of water for every ton of synthetic oil produced (360 gallons of water per barrel of oil), and the ratio is even worse for Fischer-Tropsch plants. Last summer, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the powerful body charged with regulating China’s economy and approving large capital projects, issued a warning about the environmental consequences of the “runaway development” of synthetic-oil and chemical plants, which it said will consume tens of millions of cubic meters of water annually.
That prediction sounds particularly ominous in northern China, where water is scarce. Erdos is a mix of scrub and desert whose meager water supplies are already overtaxed by population growth and existing power plants. Zhou Ji Sheng, who as vice manager of ZMMF, one of Shenhua’s Erdos-based competitors, is seeking financing for a gasification project, acknowledges that water scarcity could put an end to coal gasification in the area. “Even though we have so much coal, if we have no water, we will just have to use the traditional way–to dig it out and transport it,” he says. “Water is the key factor for us to develop this new industry.” Zhou says his firm plans to supplement its water supply by building a 120-kilometer pipeline to the Yellow River. But evaporation from hydroelectric reservoirs, the increased demand of growing cities and industries, and the effects of climate change mean that in the summer, the Yellow River barely reaches the sea.