The road between Dongsheng and Baotou is like a coal conveyor belt - hundreds of huge blue trucks overladen with the black gold, bumping their way from the mines to loading yards in Baotou, a major rail terminus. Both sides of the road are lined with coal dust which local people shovel into buckets or three-wheelers and take home to keep them warm through the freezing winter. Often trucks overturn, dumping their cargo on to the road. 'Many people are killed by flying pieces of coal because the trucks are so overloaded,' said a taxi driver, cursing lorry drivers who drive in the middle of the road. 'I do not dare use this road at night.' This is the southwest corner of Inner Mongolia, which straddles one of the world's richest coal belts. Dongsheng is capital of Yikezhao prefecture, whose reserves of 124.4 billion tonnes are one-sixth of those in China, the world's biggest producer. This treasure trove may not prove the blessing everyone thought, because the country's coal industry is facing a situation unprecedented in the communist era: the economy is growing but consumption is falling for the first time, since the start of last year. The result is record stocks, of 200 million tonnes, tumbling prices, higher losses for state coal mines and disturbing questions about the viability of giant coal projects in which the government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, this domestic slump has happened at the same time as the Asian crisis, so China cannot dispose of its surplus on the world market. China's economy is becoming more like those of other countries in Asia, with the fastest growth in department stores, tourism and computers and no longer coal-guzzling industries like steel and power. With prices set by the market and not kept artificially low by a committee of bureaucrats in Beijing, companies are being forced to use coal more frugally. China is one of the least efficient users of energy in the world, with its state firms consuming six times more for the same result than companies in Japan and three times more than those in the United States. Firms are looking for cleaner coal and more efficient ways to use it so that they can burn less and generate more energy. The weak environmental lobby is also raising its voice over air pollution. There is also a rise in the use of alternative forms of energy, such as natural gas, nuclear power, and oil. All this marks a reversal of traditional communist thinking, which made increasing coal production a symbol of national prowess. In 1980 the government allowed villages and towns to set up their own mines. They did so with a vengeance and national output more than doubled to a record 1.4 billion tonnes in 1996, accounting for more than half the total. To reduce the glut, the government decided on drastic measures: close 22,000 of these small mines, many of which were without a licence, badly run and highly polluting, with the aim of reducing annual production by 150 million tonnes within three years. But the small mines are cheaper to run and pay taxes to local governments, unlike the big state mines which are taxed by Beijing. Such was the level of resistance to the closure order the government instead decided on a more drastic step. As from July 1, it relinquished control of the 94 big state mines to city and provincial governments so they would have the same financial stake in them as in the small mines and not favour one over the other. The once-mighty Ministry of Coal Industry was abolished in March and became one of seven humble departments of the State Economic and Trade Commission, with its manpower shrunk from 402 to 95.