The Ministry of Environmental Protection has told authorities to "ensure a warm winter" for the public rather than delay heating supplies in some northern areas due to natural gas shortages or unfinished projects.
Areas that have not yet completed reconstruction projects to replace coal with gas or electric heating can use coal or any other available measures, the ministry said in an urgent circular issued on Monday, but publicly released on Thursday.
"In areas where the projects have been completed, the supply and price of natural gas and electricity must be kept stable," the circular said. "In the event of a supply shortage, priority should be given to civil use rather than industrial use."
The circular was sent to 28 cities - such as Beijing and Tianjin and those in Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces - in areas surrounding the capital.
The ministry also said that whether local authorities have "ensured a sufficient and timely heating supply" will be a focal point in its supervision and inspection work on air pollution control.
Coal has long been burned for heating in northern China, a practice that is blamed for the lingering winter smog. The 28 cities are those included in an action plan released by the ministry in August. The plan asked these cities to cut concentrations of PM2.5 - hazardous fine particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns - by at least 15 percent year-on-year from October to March. Under the plan, 3 million households in the 28 cities will use electricity or gas for heating this winter, so massive reconstruction projects had started.
However, as the heating season began, many people in these areas found their homes and schools freezing due to unfinished projects or gas shortages. The total number of people affected is not yet known.
A man surnamed Cao from the China Huadian Corp thermal power plant in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, said his company is helping transform heating facilities for a local company and the work could not be finished by the start of winter.
"To replace coal with clean energy for heating in all of Hebei is a huge project, and it takes time," he said.
With the increasing demand, the price of natural gas has surged. Domestic liquefied natural gas prices reached a record high of 9,000 yuan ($1,361) a metric ton on Dec 1 in some regions. The National Development and Reform Commission has coordinated with major natural gas suppliers to secure adequate supplies and stabilize prices. Hebei has issued an orange alert for natural gas supplies, suggesting a supply gap of 10 percent to 20 percent.