Compared to modern industries such as high-tech and shiny retail malls, foreign investment in China's coal industry may be seen as a step into the past.
Yet more and more foreign companies have entered the coal and related chemical sectors to tap into one of the nation's most traditional heavy industries.
Foreign companies now interested in major projects include US chemical giant Dow Chemical, Sasol Ltd from South Africa and Thailand's Chia Tai Group, said Zhang Yuzhuo, deputy general manager of Shenhua Group, the nation's largest coal company.
"Although foreign investment still accounts for a small part of China's coal chemical industry, multinationals have quickened their pace in the sector," said Zhang, who is also in charge of Shenhua's coal liquefaction business.
The quick development of China's coal chemical industry has provided a big incentive for foreign companies. According to a draft of the medium- and long-term plan for the development of China's coal chemical industry, China will invest more than 1 trillion yuan in development by 2020.
The nation will focus on the production of liquefied coal, dimethyl ether (DME), coal-to-olefin (CTO) and coal methanol.
By the year 2020 China plans to produce 30 million tons of liquefied coal and 20 million tons of DME; it aims to produce 8 million tons of CTO and 66 million tons of coal methanol by that year.
The nation also plans to build seven coal chemical bases by 2020.
Constantly rising oil prices have prompted the development of China's coal chemical industry, said Zhang.
"Coal chemical products will offer an efficient way to quench China's thirst for oil. It is conducive to reducing China's external dependence on crude oil," said Zhang.
Of all China's coal-related chemical enterprises, coal liquefaction has accounted for the largest segment, said Zhang, adding that many foreign companies have already begun operations.
Big deals signed
Last year world energy giant Shell signed an agreement with Shenhua Ningxia Coal Industry Co (Shenhua Ningmei) to jointly study coal-liquefaction technology at a coal-to-liquid fuel plant in Yinchuan, in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
"If the three-year feasibility program goes smoothly, the new coal-to-liquid fuel plant, with an investment of US$5 billion to US$6 billion, will be one of the largest foreign-funded projects in the country," said Zhang Wenjiang, chairman of Shenhua-Ningmei.
Lim Haw Kuang, executive chairman of Shell China operations, said that as a leader in clean coal technology, Shell has proven technology that converts coal to gas and then gas to liquids.
"We believe this technology is important to China, particularly in large coal-producing areas such as Ningxia," he said.
The study is expected to be completed by 2009, with the plant projected to yield 70,000 barrels of oil a day by 2012.
Apart from Shell, many other foreign companies have come to China seeking opportunities with coal chemical projects. Last June, South Africa-based Sasol, the world leader in producing fuel from coal, joined hands with Shenhua Group to set up two coal-to-liquid plants using Sasol's technology.
The two liquefied coal projects, one in Yulin in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province and another in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, will each produce 3.6 million tons of oil a year.
Sasol will hold a 50 percent stake in each project. The total investment in the two projects will be US$10 billion to US$14 billion. Construction could begin in 2013.
While Shell and Sasol have made the largest foreign investment to date, other multinationals are working with Chinese companies to produce coal chemical products.
Dow Chemical said it is exploring a CTO program in China, and has signed an agreement with Shenhua to study the feasibility of using coal gasification in a large-scale olefin plant.
"Coal chemical projects always require a lot of money, and high standards for coal resources, water resources, environment and technology," said Zhang.
Potential investment risks
The industry may show enormous promise to foreign multinationals, but the sector has huge potential risks, analysts said, noting their investment comes when China's coal chemical industry is still in its infancy.
Zhang said that blind construction is unsustainable for the healthy development of the industry.
In July the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning body, issued regulations on the coal chemical industry, urging local governments to tighten control over new projects.
The government will not approve coal liquefaction projects with an annual production capacity under 3 million tons, coal methanol, or DME projects under 1 million tons and CTO projects under 600,000 tons.
(China Daily January 18, 2007)