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China approves massive new coal capacity despite pollution fears

China approved the construction of more than 100 million tons of new coal production capacity in 2013 – six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage – flying in the face of plans to tackle choking air pollution.

The scale of the increase, which only includes major mines, reflects Beijing's aim to put 860 million tons of new coal production capacity into operation over the five years to 2015, more than the entire annual output of India.

(Read more: China's coal use slated to jump 37% by 2020)

While efforts to curb pollution mean coal's share of the country's energy mix is set to dip, the total amount of the cheap and plentiful fuel burned will still rise.

According to data compiled by Reuters, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top planning authority, approved the construction of 15 new large-scale coal mines with 101.3 million tons of annual capacity in 2013.

Woman walks with her child on a street as schools were closed due to the heavy smog in Jilin, northeast China's Jilin province.Getty Images

"Given that China's total energy consumption is still growing along with the economy, then coal production will continue to grow," said Helen Lau, senior commodities analyst with UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.

"While China is trying to foster consumption from other sources like hydro and nuclear, we expect actual coal production to grow 2-3 percent a year in the next five years."

Chinese coal production of 3.66 billion tons at the end of 2012 already accounts for nearly half the global total, according to official data. The figure dwarves production rates of just over 1 billion tons each in Europe and the United States.

(Read more: 2014 power play: Energy prices hit a 4-year low)

Much of China's new capacity is in regions like Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, reflecting a strategy to close small mines in marginal locations like Beijing and consolidate output in a series of huge "coal industry bases" that will deliver thermal power to markets via the grid.

While expanding output at such bases, China has shut more than 300 million tons of old capacity in the last decade, but critics say new mines are rapidly outpacing closures and the policy merely shifts China's environmental problems elsewhere.

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