Taking a rest in the shade of trees, one could hardly imagine what the flower-strewn grassland in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province was like only five years ago.
"The barren mountainous land was pock-faced with thousands of small oil wells, and stinky sewage was flowing everywhere, threatening our drinking water," said Guo Zitian, a villager from the Zhouhe Village of ecologically vulnerable Jingbian County.
Since oil was discovered in the region in the 1980s, private oil wells mushroomed with many skirting the State-owned large oil wells, stealing some oil away and leaving more spilt.
Stealing was so rampant that some people built houses there as blindage, dug wells in their houses and siphoned oil from pipelines of large oil wells, while many others drove to the spot with their cars, stole the oil and run away.
The result is heavy pollution.
Dali River, a local river providing drinking water for local villagers, was heavily polluted, forcing some 6,000 villagers in the county to transport water from miles away.
Referring to those private operators disgustedly as "oil ghost", Guo recalled the past days with conflicts.
"Villagers always appealed to local courts saying that their land was ruined by private operators," said an official in charge of the environment protection bureau of the Jingbian county who declined to be named.
"Private oil wells with less capital and poor facilities and techniques neglected environmental protection," said the official.
The worsening situation attracted attention from the government, who ordered a shutdown of private oil wells in 2003.
The shutdown of small oil wells meant a large number of local families were losing their sources of income. Thus local government agreed to pay compensation to cover 70 percent of their losses.
After three years, 70 percent of the private oil wells closed voluntarily while the rest were shut down by local governments.
The move also propelled other oil fields to invest more on environmental protection.
In the State-owned Changqing Oil Field, one of the largest in the region with an annual processing capacity of 10 million tons, more than 500 million yuan has been invested annually for improvement of facilities and ecological environment in the oil field.
"As we build an oil well, we plant trees around it to minimize the damage to environment," said Hao Shengliang, an official with the State-owned Changqing Oil Field.
"We urge our staff to attach importance to environmental protection and conduct regular and irregular inspections," said the unnamed official with the environment protection bureau of the Jingbian County, "besides, environmental issue is also key to the evaluation of leaders of the fields."
The exhaust gas in oil exploration used to be discharged into the air or burned, but now it is transported to nearby residences for heating or electricity generation.
"Local villagers no longer have to lumber for firewoods," said Fan Xiquan, an official with the oil field, " a virtuous circle of economic development and environment protection has taken shape."
China's western regions constitute a critical component in the country's energy structure. The region has 65 percent of the nation's mineral deposits and 76 percent of its water resources. The area bordering Shaanxi, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia has about 60 percent of China's verified coal reserves.
However, western regions are prone to natural disasters such as drought and sand storms.
China has invested 110 billion yuan (US$14.2 billion) on protecting the environment in the western regions since 2000 and has set a target of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010 nationwide.