Planned production cuts in China's coal sector may raise prospects for environmental gains if the government succeeds in promoting cleaner fuels, experts say.
Last month, central government authorities took extraordinary steps to curb excess coal production as prices continued their two-year slide.
On Aug. 13, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) announced it would conduct joint inspections of government-owned coal mines with other agencies. The inspections focus on "mining safety, overproduction and unauthorized capacity expansion," the industry website sxcoal.com reported.
On Aug. 21, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the state planning body, ordered local governments to "severely punish" mines producing above approved capacity, the site said.
At the government's urging, the China National Coal Association (CNCA) has called on members to curb operations.
Jiang Zhimin, CNCA's vice chairman, said the industry "has reached a consensus to reduce output by 10 percent in the second half of 2014," the official Xinhua news agency reported on Aug. 26.
It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to keep prices from falling further.
Benchmark coal prices have plunged over 20 percent since the start of the year from 610 yuan to 479 yuan (U.S. $99.21 to $77.90) per metric ton as of Aug. 20, Xinhua said.
The range compares with a high of over U.S. $130 (799 yuan) per ton in 2011, the Financial Times reported.
The glut has been the result of multiple factors in China, which accounted for 47 percent of the world's coal production and over half of consumption last year, according to BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
Slower economic growth has sapped demand, while global competition from cleaner fuels has helped to drive coal prices down.
China took advantage of cheap foreign coal last year, importing a record 330 million tons. Imports have added to oversupply, depressing prices even more.
Coal companies have responded by overproducing in hopes of replacing lost revenues, creating a downward spiral with prices sagging to five-year lows.
China mined 3.7 billion tons of the high-polluting fuel last year, Xinhua reported in January, citing the CNCA. In the past, provincial totals have exceeded national figures, raising suspicions that actual output could be even more.
In a further sign of oversupply, China's General Administration of Customs (GAC) reported on Sept. 8 that coal imports in the first eight months fell 5.3 percent to 202 million tons. Average prices were down 15.3 percent, Xinhua said.
Signs of decline
Environmental groups have been on the lookout for signs of decline, hoping that the government's anti-smog campaign will combine with poor market conditions to reduce burning of coal.
The central government's five-year action plan calls for reducing coal's share in China's energy mix to 65 percent in 2017. The share stood at an estimated 65.7 percent in 2013.
Last month, Greenpeace East Asia wrote in a blog posting that China's coal consumption "seems to have dropped in the first half of 2014," suggesting that "the structure of the Chinese economy is finally starting to change away from the energy intensive industries and investment."
But the conclusions may be hard to confirm.
Six-month CNCA figures cited by the energy website bjx.com.cn and Platts energy news service show production of 1.816 billion tons slipped 1.8 percent from a year before.
The trend continued at a milder pace, according to data for the first seven months reported by Platts, as coal output dropped 1.45 percent.
But even if the cutback proves real, it is unclear how long it will last.
The plunge in coal prices has raised expectations that the dip may be near the bottom, spurring a new spurt of buying for the bargain energy source.
The NDRC has ordered mining companies to cut imports for the rest of the year amid reports that it may ban imports of low-quality coal to support the industry.
"The wild card in all of this long term is what's really going to happen in China environmentally. How much conversion can they accomplish to other fuels?" said Andy Roberts, an analyst at the international consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, quoted by the Financial Times.
"It is still going to be a coal-based economy 20 years from now, but it might be a much lower share of power generation," Roberts said.
Beijing has taken the lead in pledging to close all coal-fired power plants in the city by 2017, responding to public complaints during the smog crisis last year.
But it is uncertain how much or if China will reduce total coal burning in the country as a whole, faced with competing economic and environmental costs.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at National University of Singapore, said it is still unclear whether coal demand in the country is undergoing cyclical or permanent change.
"China's coal mining industry is suffering the same as the rest of the world's coal miners, the problem of boom and bust in an industry with long investment cycles," Andrews-Speed said.
There were also signs that coal prices may be feeling the effect of shorter-term pressures, including a 29-percent jump in hydropower production in July.
Sluggish demand and low prices may be seen as an opportunity to drive more inefficient mines out of business.
"However, as we have seen before in this and other industries in China, local protectionism and cross subsidies protect companies that should go bust," he said.
Another complication is that natural gas and coal prices are moving in opposite directions, testing the government's push to replace coal with cleaner fuel during a period of slower economic growth.
Last month, the NDRC announced an increase in gas rates for industrial and non-residential users of about 18 percent starting Sept. 1, hoping to recoup losses from high-priced imports and encourage domestic production, Reuters reported.
The government previously raised non-residential gas rates by about 15 percent in July 2013.
"The fall in coal prices occurring at the same time as the rise in domestic gas prices threatens to undermine the push for gas, but I presume that the government hopes that the regulatory measures relating to the environment will prevent users from switching back to coal," Andrews-Speed said.
So far, evidence of economic restructuring from the energy data appears cloudy.
Analysts often look to power consumption as an indicator of true economic growth, while a comparison with official gross domestic product (GDP) may be seen as a measure of China's progress to boost energy efficiency.
Last year, electricity use rose 7.5 percent, nearly as much as GDP growth of 7.7 percent. But in the first six months of this year, power consumption increased 5.3 percent compared with first-half GDP growth of 7.4 percent.
The larger spread between the figures this year could be a sign of a major gain in energy efficiency with less reliance on heavy industry for economic growth.
On Sept. 10, the government claimed just such an efficiency gain as Premier Li Keqiang announced that energy use per unit of GDP in the first half of the year had dropped 4.2 percent from the year-earlier period.
Carbon intensity, which measures emissions per unit of GDP, also fell sharply by 5 percent, said Li, according to Xinhua.
But the abrupt change in power growth rates may also raise doubts about the accuracy of GDP figures.
"If we take the data at face value, this is consistent with a gradual shift away from infrastructure and heavy industry and toward manufacturing and services," said Andrews-Speed.
"But this differential between growth in power consumption and GDP appears to be a bit too sudden to be credible," he said.
Over the years, Li and other officials have repeatedly questioned the accuracy of GDP data compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
In the latest suggestion of bad data, state-controlled China Youth Daily reported on Sept. 4 that the sum of GDP figures from the country's 31 provincial-level governments exceeded the national total by a whopping 12.6 percent in the first half.
The discrepancies have persisted for 10 consecutive years, the paper said.
Signs of economic lag continued in the latest NBS figures released Saturday as industrial production rose 6.9 percent in August from a year before, the slowest pace in nearly six years.
Power consumption fell 2.2 from the year-earlier period, posting the first decline since 2009, Bloomberg News said.