China’s Synthetic Natural Gas: Is It Really Clean Energy?

synthetic natural gas

China is doubling-down on synthetic natural gas in hopes of reducing air pollution. But is this new natural gas any cleaner?

A study published in Nature last month investigated the finer details of China’s recent approval of nine synthetic natural gas power plants (with plans to build 4o more).

As you may know, China is facing an extreme air pollution problem. Government officials say the large-scale synthetic natural gas plants will curb the countries air pollution issues, but the claim is under scrutiny by the scientific community.

To create synthetic natural gas one must essentially turn coal into a liquid energy source.  Extreme heat and steam used to convert mined coal to synthetic gas that can essentially be transported through pipelines, much like traditional natural gas and oil.

Synthetic natural gas is nothing new, as of 2010 China already had 56 plants in operation.  The United State has one too. It’s called the Great Plains Synfuels Plant in North Dakota, and it began operating in 1984 (yes, the date is creepy).

China has often pointed to the North Dakota plant as a success story and claim to have modeled their synthetic natural gas on its production. What they don’t mention, however, is the drastically different scale. China’s plants will fabricate a total capacity of 37.1 billion cubic meters synthetic natural gas each year. By comparison, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant produces just 1.5 billions cubic meters a year.

Transforming coal into synthetic natural gas is extremely energy and water intensive, so why would China be investing in this energy resource?

It actually takes more energy and water to make synthetic natural gas than simply burning coal itself. In fact, the previously mentioned study reported using synthetic natural gas to create electricity will lead to 36 percent to 82 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than simply burning coal. The report concludes China’s plants would “produce seven times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas plants and will use up to 100 times the water as shale gas production.”

Although it’s more energy intensive, using synthetic natural gas to create electricity doesn’t emit as much smog and particulate matter as burning coal. Chinese cities has been under extreme attack by environmental organizations and citizens alike to address the sickeningly dense and ever present air pollution.

All the new synthetic natural gas power plants will be built in far west regions of China around inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. These locations are far enough away from the major that cities that, at least in theory, the plants closer to the cities could shut down, and reducing smog and air pollution in urban areas. These plants might create conditions for less particulate matter being pumped into the atmosphere but the energy and water demands only continue to rise.

Synthetic natural gas might be fixing one issue, but it is undoubtedly creating more. How effective can this patchwork approach be?

Robert B. Jackson, second author on the recent study, Nicholas Professor of Environmental Sciences, and director of the Duke Center on Global Change, says, “Using coal to make natural gas may be good for China’s energy security, but it’s an environmental disaster in the making.”

 Image: Jonathan Kos-Read

Juliette Donatelli

Working in the field of sustainability for over seven years, Juliette is passionate about its intersection within the fashion industry. Juliette began studying ecological conservation, and led consumer awareness campaigns around the world from water usage in southern California, riparian restoration in South Africa, food distribution in Paris and bison habitat in the Great Plains. She has launched her passion--consumerism and sustainability--into a place where it hits home--fashion. Juliette is the founder and editor-in-chief of, Director of Sustainability at Manufacture NY, and loves to read, dance, swim and enjoy the occasional glass of champagne.