Oil prices may rise and fall, but the quest for energy security is eternal. It is in China, at least.

China joined South Africa as the only countries with a working coal-to-liquids plant designed to turn abundant domestic coal into liquid transport fuel, Bloomberg notes. China’s Shenhua Group announced the plant went operational yesterday, with plans to ramp up liquids production from 13,000 barrels a day to about 240,000 barrels a day by 2015, notes Platts.

While that’s still a literal drop in the bucket compared to China’s overall thirst for oil, it also shows that coal-to-liquids is slowly coming back into business. Falling oil prices and the credit crunch helped derail the first big coal-to-liquids plant in the U.S. in October. But in mid-December, West Virginia officials announced even bigger plans for a $3 billion coal-to-liquids facility.

China’s new plant also shows that countries rich in coal but poor in oil are likely to play to their strengths as they seek to meet rising demand for energy, especially liquid transport fuels. Both crude oil and gasoline are getting more expensive after five months of declines.

The bigger question is which will weigh more in coming years: The search for energy security, or environmental concerns about carbon-dioxide emissions and climate change.

China, like the U.S., has aggressively expanded its clean-energy investments in recent years, including plans for the world’s largest solar-power plant. But the new coal-to-liquids plant in Outer Mongolia, and ambitious plans to increase production there ten-fold over the next decade, show that old-fashioned energy isn’t going away anytime soon.