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Checking Inhofe’s Energy Statistics on China

Sen. Jim Inhofe scoffed at the suggestion that China could shift 20 percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030, in part, he said, because China “has no known reserves of natural gas.” But Inhofe is wrong about that.

China ranks 12th in the world with just under 2 percent of the world’s known natural gas reserves. And it intends to use natural gas to meet 10 percent of its energy needs by 2020.

Whether China can meet the targets promised in a climate change agreement reached between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping remains to be seen, of course, and Inhofe was on target with other claims related to China’s increasing reliance on coal-fired power.

Shortly after the China-U.S. deal was reached, Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma who is in line to take control of the Environment and Public Works Committee in January, released a blistering statement condemning the deal as one-sided and a “non-binding charade.”

Inhofe, Nov. 12: In the President’s climate change deal, the United States will be required to more steeply reduce our carbon emissions while China won’t have to reduce anything. It’s hollow and not believable for China to claim it will shift 20 percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030, and a promise to peak its carbon emissions only allows the world’s largest economy to buy time. China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days, is the largest importer of coal in the world, and has no known reserves of natural gas. This deal is a non-binding charade.

It’s true, as Inhofe said, that the deal is not a legally binding treaty, which would need Senate ratification. Rather in a “U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change” released on Nov. 11, the two sides said they “intend to achieve” specific targets.

U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, Nov. 11: The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.

Indeed, in the joint announcement, the two sides pledged to “work together, and with other countries, to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in 2015.”

While many Republicans criticized the deal, White House officials told the Washington Post they believe Obama — and future presidents — can reach the targets “without additional authorization from Congress.”

As for Inhofe’s claim that as part of the deal, “China won’t have to reduce anything,” that’s true, but it doesn’t mean China doesn’t have a lot of work to do to meet its end of the deal. According to the Washington Post, China “must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generating capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generating capacity of the United States.”

We were particularly curious about Inhofe’s three-part claim: “China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days, is the largest importer of coal in the world, and has no known reserves of natural gas.”

We’ll start with the one that is wrong, that China “has no known reserves of natural gas.” In fact, it does have known reserves of natural gas, and it is intending to rely more heavily on those reserves in coming years.

In an analysis of China’s energy use, the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that, according to the Oil and Gas Journal, China “held 155 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven natural gas reserves as of January 2014, 14 Tcf higher than reserves estimated in 2013 and the largest in the Asia-Pacific region.” The report goes on to say that China has tripled natural gas production between 2002 and 2012, and plans to produce even more in the future.

EIA, Feb. 4: The Chinese government anticipates boosting the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.

OPEC, BP and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency all state proven natural gas reserves in cubic meters (instead of cubic feet), and they all put China’s proven natural gas reserves at about 3.2 trillion cubic meters, representing 1.8 percent of the total global share and ranking China 12th in the world.

Inhofe also claims that “China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days.” The statistic first appeared in a New York Times article in 2006, and the statistic was repeated by the Washington Post this year.

New York Times, June 11, 2006: Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China …

Washington Post, Nov. 12: China completes a new coal plant every eight to 10 days …

We could not independently confirm this statistic precisely with the EIA. But it may be accurate, based on a World Resources Institute report in November 2012 that said China had proposed 363 new coal-fired power plants (India proposed 455). World Coal reported in August that coal-fired plant installations in China slowed to 42 gigawatts in 2013, but were expected to have a “mini renaissance” in 2014 and 2015 “before starting back on the overriding long-term downward trajectory.”

As for Inhofe’s claim that China “is the largest importer of coal in the world,” that’s true by quite a large margin. As EIA put it in February, “China is the world’s top coal producer, consumer, and importer and accounted for about half of global coal consumption.”

Update, Nov. 19: During a speech from the Senate floor on Nov. 18, Inhofe said he was misinformed and corrected his statement about China having “no known natural gas reserves.”

Inhofe, Nov. 18: I made a speech last week, I said that China has no known reserves of natural gas. And I was wrong. I was wrong due to some misinformation we got. The fact that they are not able to realize these reserves is very significant. And that shouldn’t distract from the fact that China has a difficult road ahead in developing affordable sources of fuel to meet its energy demands.

Inhofe went on to talk about some of the problems China has had with natural gas extraction, and reiterated his larger point that it will be “impossible” for China to accomplish its stated goal of capping CO2 emissions around 2030 “because of its current domestic energy mix and heavy reliance on coal for affordable electricity to its power.”

Inhofe’s office also issued a corrected press statement.

— Robert Farley