MONTGOMERY, Ala., July 19 (UPI) -- In China, they are building things. Big things. Whether you're driving north from Beijing, through lesser known cities such as Qinghuangdou, or standing atop a high-rise in Shanghai, the view is the same: cranes that are erecting tomorrow's China. Some economic developers are starting to refer to these machines as the national bird.
At this moment, more than one-third of the world's construction cranes are in China. A massive investment in infrastructure is building new housing, new roads and bridges and new centers for commerce throughout the Middle Kingdom.
The reason is simple: tens of millions of Chinese are moving into urban areas, continuing the modernization that has typified Chinese demographic trends since the nation opened itself to international investment and global markets.
Just how urban is China? Consider that while the U.S. Census lists only nine U.S. cities with an official population of more than 1 million people, China has 160. Ever heard of Chongqing? I doubt it. It's a city with an estimated population of more than 30 million, bigger than any city in the United States by far. Even more shocking is that China is not finished growing, with experts comparing the nation's current urbanization rate with the United States of 1900. In other words, China is still heavily rural.
Behind this burgeoning nation is an appetite for energy that is having consequences worldwide. Like a growing teenager, China is eating the world out of house and home, consuming the world's coal and steel at a record pace and exerting tremendous pressure on global markets for commodities of almost every kind.
The Chinese are heavily coal dependent, with about 80 percent of current electrical generation powered by coal-fired plants. Coal that is being diverted by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations away from U.S. power plants is ending up half a world away in China, where environmental controls are much less prevalent and government regulation far more lax.
In recent months, the EPA has waged an aggressive campaign of regulation aimed at significantly reducing -- maybe ending altogether -- the use of coal for electricity in our nation. Buoyed by groups such as the Sierra Club with its "Beyond Coal" mission and armed with reams of scientific reports that claim coal is murder, the EPA under Administrator Lisa Jackson's leadership has extended its reach into nearly every nook and cranny of America's coal-fired power infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the agency finalized Utility MACT, a rule the EPA claims is aimed at reducing mercury emissions from power generation. The only problem is that the vast majority of the stated benefits of Utility MACT -- 99.98 percent to be exact -- have nothing at all to do with mercury. The regulation is really aimed at particulate matter, a subset of air pollutants covered by existing agency rules. Most predict the rule to be the most expensive in the history of the EPA.
The agency has also gone so far as to regulate carbon dioxide itself by restricting its emission from power plants nationwide. Keep in mind that humans breathe carbon dioxide and plants consume it.
Add those regulations to others such as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, Coal Combustion Residual regulations, Boiler MACT, Cooling Water Intake Structure rules, new rules governing hydraulic fracturing (known popularly as fracking) and looming rules establishing new thresholds for ozone levels, and it is easy to see why American energy producers, mostly of the fossil fuel variety, are calling for relief from EPA.
To most Americans, these new rules are nothing more than incomprehensible acronyms. To those who understand how we keep the lights on and power bills affordable in the United States, they are the death knell for life as we know it in the world of highly inexpensive, nearly perfectly reliable power.
Therein lies a fundamental divide between Chinese and U.S. energy policy. They are building. We are blocking.
The United States today has the world's biggest reserves of coal and natural gas and yet policy makers are taking every step possible to ensure that those fuels end up powering China's growth and not ours.
Last year, thanks in part to U.S. exports, China overtook Japan as the world's largest importer of coal, with 182 million tons entering China's ports. Much of this is coking coal that will power steel production, with much of the rest being steam coal for China's growing number of coal-fired power plants.
The United States has the means to be energy independent, and Americans have consistently called for that, but national energy policy is taking us precisely in the opposite direction, to China's benefit.
A closer examination yields even more substantial differences between our nations. While the United States today only devotes about 2.5 percent of annual gross domestic product to infrastructure like roads and bridges, the Chinese earmark four times that to build the pathways that will enable its economic future.
Even Europe, plagued by debt and riddled with financial controversy, is spending twice what we spend on infrastructure. Meanwhile, America's roads and bridges, many built 50 or more years ago, stand in disrepair and at the horizon of their usefulness. Ground transportation capacity in China will surpass the United States by 2015. An empire famous for building a wall has turned to building bridges.
America's greatness in the modern era has always been tied to reliable, affordable power. It is in this way that campaigns such as the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" and "Beyond Gas" do disservice to the people of our nation.
By convincing us that environmental gains, diminishing as they may be, are more important than economic security. By disregarding the empirical truth that America's air and water are cleaner than they ever have been and calling instead for new regulatory measures that are not economically sound, and are certainly not practical. By preaching that austerity and deference are more important than boldness and self-preservation. By promising that solar panels and wind turbines are the key to our energy independence, when the United States has all of the coal, gas and nuclear resources it needs to power a new American renaissance in manufacturing and job expansion.
These messages, ingeniously crafted and laced with heavy doses of guilt and fear, have penetrated the American consciousness and left too many of our lawmakers willing to trade America's potential for a thumbs-up from America's environmental industry chieftains.
While China is busy raising skyscrapers, America seems content to raise only objections. The first step to changing this must be reining in the EPA and returning control of America's energy future to those elected by the American people. We can never be truly independent without the power to compete.
(Lance Brown, a regular energy and environment contributor to national publications, returned recently from China on a 2-week economic development and cultural exchange trip sponsored by the Confucius Institute. He is executive director of the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy, a non-profit group that represents power consumers and advocates for fair and sensible national energy policy.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)