Some see opportunity in China's coalfield fires

BEIJING — The burning Shuixi Gou coalfield in far western China is terrible for the environment, belching smoke and noxious gases.

Some experts look at the fire, however, and see hope for progress against global warming.

That's because the burning coalfield in western Xinjiang province may not be that hard to put out. So it's become a guinea pig of sorts for the notion that big polluters in other parts of the world might pay to fix environmental problems in countries such as China to earn a break for themselves.

The notion dates to 1997, when some developed nations signed off on the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. plan that obliges industrialized countries to reduce emissions of gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect that's warming the globe.

Hissing and venting near the town of Jimsar, the underground fire at the Shuixi Gou coalfield is thought to be emitting about 423,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere.

That sum has a value. Carbon credits can be traded under a mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, and markets already have been set up.

If firefighters could extinguish the Shuixi Gou blaze, they could earn $10 a ton for the emissions they halt — about $4.2 million a year — for seven years, as long as they can ensure that the fire doesn't reignite. Earnings could easily top $20 million. That's how much European utilities or other companies might be willing to pay to offset their own pollution.

"That's a lot of money. Maybe for extinguishing the fire you need only $4 (million) or $5 million, so you can make money," said Horst Rueter, a German geophysicist who's studied coal fires in China.

Enter a Chinese company, Xinjiang Huayu Industry & Trade, which applied last December to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change for the rights to trade in carbon credits in exchange for extinguishing the Shuixi Gou blaze. The proposal is under consideration.

The concept of trading credits to finance projects in the developing world for reducing carbon emissions — taking "low-hanging fruit," as it were, in the struggle against global warming — has a certain appeal.

"It's a pretty feasible model," said Anupma Prakash, a coal fire expert at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "The problem is there's no base-line standard and a way to measure how much you make (carbon emissions) go down."

She and other experts say it's possible, but not easy, to map out the range of an underground coal fire, the rate of combustion and the levels of greenhouse gases that are given off.

After all, scientists already use airborne and surface temperature analysis to map out such things as fish species, coral reef destruction and volcanic activity.

U.N. experts are hashing out the problems with measuring carbon emissions that bedevil putting a price tag on fighting coal fires. At a meeting in late August in Bonn, Germany, they sought further expertise. It's unclear when a decision is expected, but one German expert said that as soon as the Shuixi Gou case was resolved, a flood of applications might arrive to trade credits for putting out coal fires.

"If this particular case is decided, then probably there will be a number of projects in various countries, not just China," said Ralph Schlueter, the deputy head of geology at DMT GmbH in Essen, Germany.


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