The Ministry of Land and Resources on Friday launched a national campaign to shut down coal mines that cause pollution or those without licences.
The ministry has made this a priority particularly since coal is the most popular energy source fuelling China's booming economy.
But it can also be harmful to the environment. For example, some low-quality coal can send excessive amounts of sulphur and floating particles into the air when burning.
In the past few years, the ministry has closed down hundreds of small mines in its efforts to regulate the mining industry, the target of frequent complaints from foreign investors interested in the country's mining sector.
But this is the first program targeted towards coal mines.
"It is time to fend off the many individual and private coal mines, whose lower-than-standard operations cause unnecessary waste of the country's valuable coal resources," said Peng Jianxun, president of the Datong Coal Mining Group in north China's Shanxi Province.
The coal mining sector has been in the spotlight in China since last year when electricity shortages hit many Chinese regions, such as Shanghai and Zhejiang Province.
Official statistics show that 70 percent of the country's electricity is generated from coal burning.
Zeng Shaojin, director of the Mineral Exploitation Department under the ministry, explained the ministry's new move is in preparation for the country's first national coal exploitation program.
"Such a program is in great need because the huge profits involved in coal mining have attracted investors with varied backgrounds, which, in turn, has resulted in intense competition, an unstable pricing system and uncontrolled mining standards," he said.
Zeng also confirmed that enhanced protection of coal resources will facilitate the establishment of 18 planned large-scale coal mining companies, a plan outlined earlier by the State Development and Reform Commission.
"We have actually stopped approving new coal mining rights," he said.
Zeng Shaoqin expects the approval process to resume after the completion of the new programme, but failed to provide a schedule.
However, the move has aroused mixed feelings from the country's major coal-producing regions, such as Shanxi Province, where three of the planned 18 large firms will be located.
Wang Xiaoli, an engineer with the Shanxi Provincial Land and Resources Administration, said the ministry might have overlooked one important fact - that private coalmines have already been contributing to two-thirds of the province's annual coal output, which was 480 million tons last year.
On the one hand, bustling private mines will soon have no resources to exploit, while on the other hand, large areas of minerals are designated for State-owned coal mines, which cannot be developed in the near future because of their present production capacity.
"Whether the move is right or not will require three to five years to see," Wang Xiaoli said.
(Xinhua News Agency March 27, 2004)