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2021-02-01 11:05:03

China’s top energy agency is in the doghouse after its years-in-the-works plan to reduce pollution in the east by sending in power from energy-rich western provinces failed to impress central government inspectors.

Taking an unusually harsh tone, the inspection team said in a statement Friday that the National Energy Administration, or NEA, had failed to control the coal power capacity of the country’s more populous — and smoggier — eastern provinces, resulting in steadily rising air pollution in those regions.

The inspectors, who report to vice premier Han Zheng, also scolded the NEA for downplaying the environmental requirements in laws for regulating coal use, as well as the administration’s negligence in supervising coal mines. For example, during random inspections in three provinces, they found that 121 coal mines were operating at more than 30% above the approved capacity stipulated in their environmental impact assessment reports.

Some people, the inspectors said, think energy supply is the only priority, while others seem to believe the NEA isn’t in a position to deal with problems caused by local authorities. These “deviations in thought and understanding” are “important reasons for the long-term crude development of our country’s energy sector,” the inspectors said.

For years, China has been trying to address its air pollution problem by cutting coal use and reforming the domestic energy sector. A comprehensive action plan released in 2013 by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, demanded that the country’s economic centers in the east — key pollution-control areas, due to their heavy smog — start relying more on power imported from other provinces in order to reduce their own coal consumption.

In 2014, the NEA pushed ahead with 12 “air pollution prevention and control” power transmission projects, aiming to send power from energy-rich western and northern regions to densely populated centers in the east. The 12 power lines were supposed to be completed by the end of 2017, but the inspectors found that one remains unfinished.

Moreover, the use rates for these expensive, cross-provincial power lines have been lower than expected. By the end of 2019, external power transmitted to the densely populated Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and Yangtze River Delta regions — both major participants in the long-distance power transfer projects — had increased by just 4.1 and 2.7 percentage points, respectively. At the same time, the transmission of clean energy remained low, the inspectors found.

Though the central government inspectors lashed out at the NEA for failing to improve use rates for the power transmission projects, some analysts have noted that such projects — which involve building coal power plants in the west, then exporting that energy east — do not reduce China’s overall air pollution.

“The reality is that, during the period covered by the inspection, the central government did have a policy of moving coal-fired power generation and heavy industry from the east to the west,” Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told Sixth Tone. But the data shows that shift hasn’t materialized, he added.

“If the NEA and other government agencies had reined in the expansion of coal power and heavy industry in the east, that would have at least helped those provinces lead the way in the low-carbon transition, even if that meant more capacity in the west,” Myllyvirta said. “But from an environmental standpoint, it would be far better to transmit clean electricity rather than coal from the west.”

The NEA is now required to self-rectify and report its future plans to the State Council and the Communist Party’s Central Committee within 30 working days, according to Friday's statement.

Additional reporting: David Paulk; editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: IC)