by Melanie Hart
Last week, in a serious blow to China’s national high-speed rail program, two bullet trains collided near Wenzhou, derailing six rail cars and sending four plunging off the elevated line. The devastating crash killed 40 rail passengers and injured 191, and local rail officials infuriated the Chinese public by destroying and burying one of the rail cars in an apparent attempt to cover up the cause of the crash.
The Wenzhou incident is already raising new questions about the sustainability of China’s new megaprojects. For the global community, this incident should serve as a stark reminder that China’s rapid technology deployments can sometimes lead to disaster, and targeted international assistance is still needed to help China catch up on regulatory safeguards and operational best practices.
This is particularly true in the energy sector, where China’s nuclear power, shale gas and deep-sea drilling projects could have wide-ranging environmental repercussions if personnel training and safety standards fall behind their rapid technology deployments. China is now the world’s biggest renewable energy investor, and those impressive statistics can give the impression that China is leaving the U.S. behind and that we should keep our expertise at home to better compete with the rising dragon.
The House clearly thinks so – U.S. legislators recently passed a 2012 Department of Energy (DOE) appropriations bill that eliminates DOE funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy cooperation with China.
In reality, the China story is much more nuanced. China definitely has great strengths, and the United States will have to do some policy innovating at home to make sure we don’t get left behind in the long-term. However, the Chinese also have major weaknesses, and we ignore those weaknesses at our peril.
The Chinese are very good at indigenizing and rapidly deploying new technology infrastructure, but they often lag behind in the skills and regulatory structures needed to actually run those new projects in a safe and sustainable manner.
According to Kevin Tu and David Livingston at the Carnegie Endowment, China’s rapid nuclear power developments pose particularly alarming environmental and safety risks. China currently has 14 nuclear reactors in operation, 26 under construction and another 28 reactor projects in the planning pipeline. In 2010 alone, 9 of the 14 nuclear reactors constructed worldwide were in China. However, China still has no independent nuclear safety regulator and no national laws to standardize regulatory supervision or accident response.
Regulatory responsibilities are parsed out among multiple energy and environmental agencies, and the nuclear bureaus within those agencies face major personnel and budget shortages. The plants themselves also face personnel problems – the existing workforce is undertrained, and Chinese universities are not producing enough nuclear engineers to fill the gap. Due to these problems, one of China’s top physicists recently compared China’s nuclear development program to Mao’s disastrous economic transitional program “Great Leap Forward” and described the program as “rash and unsafe.”
Hydraulic fracturing is also a potential problem area. China has the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and the Chinese are looking to develop shale gas as a lower-carbon alternative to coal. PetroChina completed the first domestic shale gas well this past March, and the Ministry of Land and Resources just auctioned off the first round of shale gas exploration blocks. If China’s shale gas developments follow best practices, this could be a positive step away from coal dependency. However, if lax oversight, poorly-trained personnel and lower-tech hydraulic fracturing practices become the norm, shale gas could easily trigger a new round of environmental disasters and increase China’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Offshore oil and gas development is another. Recent oil spills in Dalian (July 2010) and in the Bohai Bay (June-July 2011) have demonstrated that Chinese energy companies and regulatory officials do not have adequate procedures and equipment in place to handle these accidents. After the Dalian spill, local officials dispatched untrained migrant workers and civilian volunteers to scoop up the oil with chopsticks, buckets and bare hands.
After the 2011 Bohai Bay spills (China’s first undersea spills), the State Oceanic Administration tried to hide the problem from the Chinese public, and oilfield operators made apparently false claims about the status of the spill recovery and clean-up process. Chinese universities and research institutes lag behind the West in funding, expertise and site access for oil spill environmental impact assessments, and that gives Chinese energy companies more leeway to hide the damage from the Chinese public and from the neighboring countries that may also be affected.
It is certainly in the U.S. interest for China to develop new energy supplies. Otherwise, China’s escalating energy demands will raise prices for everyone. The Chinese are certainly willing to devote their own financial resources and political will to keep global energy prices from spiraling. However, they are struggling to keep up on the operational side, and when the Chinese fall behind on regulatory standardization and personnel training, that increases the probability that the next Horizon or Fukushima incident will be a Chinese one and that the Chinese enterprises and officials in charge of the disaster will respond with cover-ups and blunders that magnify the damage.
It makes sense for the United States to cooperate with China to share best practices and to help them close this gap. U.S.-China bilateral energy cooperation is inexpensive, and the public support that we do contribute generally flows through U.S. businesses, so these programs create jobs and help U.S. energy companies develop new connections and opportunities overseas. Furthermore, we can do this without eroding our comparative advantage, because best practice cooperation is not about transferring the latest and greatest technology to China – it is about teaching the Chinese how to deploy what they already have (or can easily get) in a safe and sustainable manner.
Otherwise, China’s next infrastructure disaster could easily be a global one, and if under-trained and poorly-monitored Chinese enterprises and officials respond with attempts to bury the evidence, we may not find out about it until the costs reach astronomic proportions.
— Melanie Hart, China Climate and Energy Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress