Representing over 15% of the China’s land mass, but with a population of just 30 million, or 0.2% of the total, Xinjiang stretches 1,000 miles across northwestern China, engulfing not only much of the Gobi Desert, but some of China’s most arable farmland as well. Underneath much of that land, we are beginning to learn, lies some of the world’s largest and richest natural resource deposits, including huge quantities of minerals China is otherwise desperately short of, including high-calorie and clean-burning coal, copper, iron ore, petroleum.
How, when and at what cost China exploits Xinjiang’s natural resources will be among the deciding issues for China’s economy over the next thirty years. It will also impact the future path of prices of everything from petroleum to plastics, copper to iron ore.
Because of its vast size and small population, Xinjiang hasn’t yet had its mineral resources fully probed and mapped. But, every year, the size of its proven resource base expands. Knowing there’s wealth under the ground, and finding a cost-effective way to dig out the minerals and get them to market are, of course, very different things. Until recently, Xinjiang’s transport infrastructure – roads and railways – was far from adequate to provide a cost-efficient route to market for all the mineral wealth.
That bottleneck is being tackled, with new expressways opening every year, and plans underway to expand dramatically the rail network. But transport can’t alter the fact Xinjiang is still very remote from the populated core of China’s fast-growing industrial and consumer economy. Example: It can still be cheaper to ship a ton of iron ore from Australia to Shanghai than from areas in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang’s key resource, and the one with the largest potential market, is high-grade clean-burning coal. Xinjiang is loaded with the stuff, with over 2 trillion tons of proven reserves. Let that figure sink in. It’s the equivalent of over 650 years of current coal consumption in coal-dependent China . The Chinese planners’ goal is for Xinjiang to supply about 25% of China’s coal demand within ten years.
Xinjiang’s coal is generally both cleaner (low sulphur content) and cheaper to mine than the coal China now mainly relies on, much of which comes from a belt of deep coal running through Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shandong Provinces. Large coal seams in Xinjiang can be surface mined. Production costs of under $25 a ton are common. The current coal price in China is over four times higher for the dirtier, lower-energy stuff.
For all its advantages, Xinjiang coal is not going to become a primary source of energy in China. The Chinese government, rightly, understands that the cost, complexity and long distances involved make shipping vast quantities of Xinjiang coal to Eastern China unworkable. Moving coal east would monopolize Xinjiang’s rail and road network, causing serious distortions in the overall economy.
Instead, the Xinjiang government is doing something both smart and innovative. It is encouraging companies to use Xinjiang’s abundant coal as a feedstock to produce lower cost supplies of industrial products and chemicals now produced using petroleum. All kinds of things become cost-efficient to manufacture when you have access to large supplies of low-cost energy from coal. Shipping finished or intermediate goods is obviously a better use of Xinjiang’s limited transport infrastructure.
I’ve seen and met the bosses of several of these large coal-based private sector projects in Xinjiang. The scale and projected profitability of these projects is awesome. In one case, a private company is using a coal mine it developed to power its $500mn factory to produce the plastic PVC. The coal reserve was provided for free, in return for the company’s agreement to invest and build the large chemical factory next to it. The cost of producing PVC at this plant should be less than one-third that of PVC made using petroleum. China’s PVC market, as well as imports, are both staggeringly large. The new plant will not only lower the cost of PVC in China but reduce China’s demand for petroleum and its byproducts.
Another company, one of the largest private petrochemical companies in China, is using its Xinjiang coal reserve, again supplied for free in return for investment in new factories, to power a large chemical plant to produce glycerine and other chemical intermediates. This company is already a large producer of these chemicals at its factories in Shandong. There, they run on petroleum. In the new Xinjiang facility, coal will be used instead, lowering overall manufacturing costs by at least 20% – 30% based on an oil price of around $50. At current oil prices, the cost savings, and margins, become far richer.
The key, of course, is that the companies get the coal reserve for free, or close to it. True, they need to build the coal mine first, but generally, that isn’t a large expense since it can all be surface-mined. This means that the cost of energy in these very energy-intensive projects is much lower than it would be for plants using petroleum or, to be fair, any operator elsewhere who would need to purchase the coal reserve as well as build the capital-intensive downstream facilities.
The Xinjiang projects should lock-in a significant cost advantage over a significant period of time. As investments, they also should provide consistently high returns over the long-term. While the capital investment is large, I’m confident the projects are attractive on risk/return basis, and that in a few years time, these private sector “coal-for-petroleum” projects will begin to go public, and become large and successful public companies.
Deals are getting larger. This summer, China’s largest coal producer, Shenhua Group, announced it would invest Rmb 52 billion ($8 billion) on a coal-to-oil project in Xinjiang. The company plans to mine 70 million tons of coal a year and turn it into three million tons of fuel oil.
Remote and sparsely-populated as it now is, Xinjiang is going to play a decisive role in China’s industrial and energy future, just as the development of America’s West has helped drive economic growth for over 100 years, and created some of America’s largest fortunes. My prediction: China’s West will produce more coal and mineral billionaires over the next 100 years than America’s has over the past hundred.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.