Eoin Treacy's view -
In its most recent 5-Year Plan (2011-15), the Chinese government laid out an aggressive time table for development of its coal-to-olefins (CTO), coal-to syngas (CTG) and methanol-to-olefins (MTO) industries (Appendix 1-3).
The economics of China coal-to-olefins (ethylene / propylene) is competitive relative to the world’s naphtha-to-olefins industry (Figure 2, Figure 20 & Figure 92-93). The world’s naphtha-to-olefins industry is Asia-based. Ninety percent (90%) of Asia’s olefin (ethylene) capacity uses naphtha as a feedstock (Appendix 6-10). Asia produces 34% of global ethylene. A fast-growing China CTO industry would displace its own naphtha to olefins industry (24% of global ethylene capacity). Somehow, this strategy does not make much sense; although it would produce short-term China GDP growth.
The economics of China coal-to-olefins however is not competitive relative to a growing North American and Middle Eastern natural gas-to-olefins industry (Figure 2, Figure 20, and Figure 94). From a cost perspective, a fast-growing China CTO industry would displace its own naphtha to olefins industry but then be displaced itself by a lower-cost North American and Middle Eastern natural gas-to-olefins industry. Somehow, this strategy makes even less sense; except for the fact that it creates plenty of China GDP by both building and then dismantling multiple China industry chains.
China’s coal-to-olefins and / or coal-to-urea do not make economic sense in a world awash in low-cost natural gas. Notwithstanding, China continues to grow its coal-to industries; maybe on the prospect that the world’s growing supplies of cheap natural gas could be short-lived.
The production of olefins from coal requires an abundance of water (Figure 98) and produces an abundance of CO2 emissions (Figure 102). The addition of one 600k tpa CTO facility in Beijing would increase provincial CO2 emissions by 14%. China’s abundant water resource (Figure 95) is located in the South and South West part of the country; its coal resources are located in the North and North West part of the country (Figure 11-12) – bad luck.
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China has a substantial coal sector which, in common with the global sector, has been under pressure from below trend global growth, increasingly stringent environment regulations and competition from lower cost alternatives (at least in some jurisdictions) such as natural gas. The green light for investment in coal to liquids development appears to be an attempt from some portions of the administration to provide the coal sector with an additional business line in order to preserve its viability.
Quite how viable that is when water and environmental concerns have not been addressed and when the country is also investing heavily in developing its own natural gas reserves raises some important questions about whether this will in fact pan out.
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