Shale Gas, China’s Very Buried Treasure — Nikkei Asian Review



Water, water not a drop to drink. While that may not precisely sum up China’s dilemma, it is clear that the country with the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and urgent need to extract it,  will have problems achieving its ambitious long-term goals. The newly-finalized Five Year Plan calls for an enormous increases in natural gas output in China. The carbon emission reduction agreement signed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping also requires China to diversify away from coal. Shale gas is the obvious replacement.

As of now, virtually all that gas remains trapped in the ground. The two companies given the plum rights to develop the gas, China’s oil giants Sinopec and PetroChina, may not have the technical competence to fully develop the resource. The companies that have the skills, mainly a group of small entrepreneurial US drillers, has so far shown zero inclination to either come to China or come to the aid of the two SOE giants by providing equipment and know-how.

To attract them to China will likely require a significant shift in the way China’s energy resources are owned and allocated. It will mean creating terms in China every bit as favorable, if not more so, than skilled shale gas drilling companies enjoy in the US and elsewhere.



This is why for China’s senior leaders and economic planners, this map is as much a curse as blessing. Knowing that vast quantities of much-needed clean energy is in the ground but not having the domestic infrastructure and technology to get it to market efficiently is about as tough and frustrating as any economic problem China now confronts.

The Chinese policy goal and the on-and-in-the-ground situation in China are on opposite sides of the spectrum. China has said it must quickly increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.  The original target announced with great fanfare was for shale gas production to increase almost 200-fold between 2012 and the end of the decade. But, this goal was quietly slashed by 30% last year. More slashes may be on the way.

What’s most needed and in shortest supply in China: more commercial competition, more players, more market signals.

Based on the US experience, drilling for shale gas isn’t the kind of thing that big oil companies are good at. Unfortunately for China, all it has are giants. Rather inefficient ones at that. Sinopec, PetroChina are, based on metrics like output-per-employee, perhaps only one-tenth as efficient as the majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and BP. Note, these big Western companies all pretty much missed the boat with shale gas. In other words, the bigger the oil company the worse it’s been so far at exploiting shale gas. Yes, it’s these big global giants who now seem the most interested to work with Sinopec and PetroChina to develop shale gas China. In fact, Shell is already partnered up with Sinopec. How’s this likely to work out? Think of a pack of elephants ice fishing.

China’s dilemma comes down to this: it’s probably the most entrepreneurially-endowed country on the planet, but entrepreneurs are basically not allowed in the oil and gas extraction businesses. It’s a legacy of old-style Leninism, that the state must hold control over the pillars of the economy. It works okay when the problem is pumping petroleum or natural gas from giant onshore or offshore fields. But, shale gas is another world, with many and smaller wells. A typical one in the Barnett Shale gas region of Texas costs $2mn – $5mn, barely a rounding error for large oil and gas companies. These smaller wells, depending on prevailing price and drilling direction, can achieve a return within one year or less.

Profits are usually much higher for shale wells with horizontal drilling capability. But, it’s also much trickier to do. Production drops off dramatically in most shale gas wells, falling by about 90% during the first two years. So, you need to know how to make money efficiently, quickly, then move on to another opportunity.

The one place where Sinopec is now producing a decent amount of shale gas, at field in Sichuan province, the cost of getting the gas out of the ground is running at least twice the US level. Partly its geography and partly it’s the fact giant state-owned companies operating in a competition-free environment usually need three dollars to do what an entrepreneurial company can do for one.

Ancient Chinese oil well

China was the first country to drill successfully for oil, over 1500 years ago.   It could use more of that native ingenuity to unlock the country’s buried wealth. The shale gas industry is largely the product of one brilliant and stubborn Greek-American entrepreneur, George Mitchell, who began experimenting with horizontal drilling in Texas about 30 years ago. He had his big breakthrough in 1998. Everyone knew the gas was down there, as they do now in China. The trick Mitchell solved was getting it out of the ground at a low-cost. The company he started Mitchell Energy & Development, now part of Devon Energy, remains at the forefront of shale gas exploration and production.

China needs Mitchell Energy as well its own George Mitchells, who can use their pluck and tolerance for risk to make the gas pay. Not only shale gas, but China is also blessed with equally abundant deposits of coalbed methane. Pretty much all this methane is in the hands of big state-owned coal companies. Talk about a wasting asset. The coal miners have zero expertise, and for now it seems zero incentive to go after this fuel in a big way. Just about everything about the oil and gas business in China is state-owned and price-controlled.

The applause was nearly deafening, especially in the US and Europe, when the leaders of the US and China announced the big agreement to reduce carbon emissions. No one can argue with the sentiments, with the policy goal of creating a cleaner world. But, absent from the discussion are specifics on how China will meet its promises. It’s only going to happen if and when natural gas becomes a major part of the energy mix.

China has of course built pipelines to bring gas from Russia and more are on the way. But, even this huge flow of Russian gas, an expected 98 billion cubic meters per year by 2020,  will provide at most 17% of China’s projected gas needs by that year. Clearly then, the most meaningful thing that could happen is for the shale fields in China to be thrown open to all-comers, but especially the mainly-US companies that are experts at doing this. That isn’t happening.

I’ve been in the room with Chinese government officials when the topic was discussed about how to make it enticing for US specialist shale companies to drill in China. There’s a growing understanding this is the right way to go, but still the policy environment remains inhospitable. While China has the most shale gas, there is a lot of it in countries including stalwart US allies like Poland and Australia where the US companies are far more welcome and don’t have to deal with a market rigged in favor of state-owned goliaths. Everyone who wants to see a cleaner China and so a cleaner world should wish above all else that China’s shale and methane fields become a stomping ground rather than a no-go area for great entrepreneurs.

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

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China Needs Shale Gas as Much, If Not More, Than US

Shale gas is the most important major new source of energy on the planet, as well as the most important development in the petroleum economy since deep water drilling. Shale gas is reshaping the world’s energy market in a way that even a decade ago seemed unthinkable. This is especially true in the US, where most of the shale gas development is now taking place. Ten years ago, shale gas was just 1% of American natural-gas supplies. Today, it is about 25% and could rise to 50% within two decades. Estimates are that US has more than a 100-year supply of natural gas, thanks to the development of shale gas. Natural gas is used for everything from home heating and cooking to electric generation, industrial processes and petrochemical feedstocks.

Shale gas was first discovered over a century ago. But, it’s only become a commercially-viable source of natural gas with the invention, over the last twenty years, of new drilling technology to break layers of rock and release the gas trapped within. The technology is known as hydraulic fracturing (now widely known as “fracking” or “fracing”). The companies that have played the leading role in developing this technology are mainly all American. They are already making billions of dollars using their techniques to drill deep under the surface across the continental US and harvest the gas trapped there.  The US, which just a few years ago looked to be running out of natural gas, now may someday begin exporting, thanks to its large deposits of shale gas.

The US has long been the world’s largest user and importer of energy. Last year, it was announced that China has overtaken the US in overall energy consumption. Its energy imports are on track to overtake America’s. Although natural gas use is increasing in China, it only comprised 4 percent of the country’s total energy consumption in 2008.

Beneath China’s surface also lies shale gas, most likely quite a lot of it. According to information released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in April, China has 1,275 tcf of technically recoverable shale gas resources, nearly 50% more than the US.  Those estimated recoverable reserves are more than one thousand times the amount of natural gas used in China in 2010.

For China in decades to come, as much as for America, shale gas could be the energy “game-changer”, increasing energy self-reliance and helping to shift the country away from its heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation. Domestic shale gas, if fully exploited, would have enormous impacts not only in China, but worldwide. It could moderate China’s skyrocketing demand for petroleum, one of the primary drivers of higher oil prices. It would mean less coal gets mined and burned, which would have widespread environmental benefits and also ease the strain on the nation’s transportation infrastructure, a large part of which is now devoted to moving coal from where its mined to where its burned for electricity.

China already has more cars and busses running on natural gas than the US. Quite a few cities, including some large ones like Chongqing and Urumqi in Xinjiang, have many of their taxis running on natural gas. There is already a large infrastructure of “natural gas stations” across China. In other words, China stands to benefit, proportionately, even more from the US from a large supply of cheap, domestic natural gas.

The key question is: will China be able to tap its shale gas efficiently? In fact, it may be one of the most important questions in world energy markets over the next five to ten years. The technology is new, complex and almost entirely American. The owners may not be interested to share it with Chinese companies. For one thing, most of the companies with core technology and experience in tapping shale gas are themselves producers, not just suppliers of drilling equipment. Under current rules, they might not find China a very attractive market, especially when the US has so much untapped natural gas, as does neighboring Canada.

China’s leaders clearly understand the importance of shale gas to its economy and the importance of US shale gas technology. China’s goal is to produce 30 billion cubic meters a year from shale, equivalent to almost half the country’s gas consumption in 2008.  In November 2009, US President Barack Obama agreed to share US gas-shale technology with China, and to promote US investment in Chinese shale-gas development.

That sounds more significant than it probably is. President Obama cannot do much to help China, since the US government has little shale gas technology of its own, nor can he provide any real economic incentive for US companies to share technology with China. If there is a good market reason for US companies to drill for shale gas in China, they will surely do it. That is not the case now, as far as I can tell. Energy production and pricing are both heavily controlled by the Chinese government. A US shale gas producer would probably not be able to fully-own a shale gas field in China, nor sell its output at world market prices.  So, my guess is the owners of the best shale gas technology will not likely share it with China.

PetroChina and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) bought stakes in North American shale drillers like Chesapeake Energy and EnCana with the intent of acquiring technology and ramping up production at home. But, it is not certain, to say the least, that this strategy will pay off — becoming a small shareholder is not the same as buying a right to that company’s technology and expertise.

That leaves China with two choices, neither of which is appetizing: first, rely on domestic technology; second, try to obtain US technology by other than legal means. It could take domestic producers a long time to master the technology, and even then, it may not be equal to the best of what the US now has. With the second route, the problem is that it’s not enough just to get hold of drilling equipment. Exploiting shale gas reserves requires a mix of special equipment and know-how, which is far harder to obtain. A lot of the most successful shale gas fields in the US, for example, use horizontal drilling, a method pioneered in US, that allows operators to “ drill down to a certain depth and then to drill at an angle or even sideways. This exposes more of the reservoir, permitting the recovery of a much greater amount of gas,” according to the noted energy researcher Daniel Yergin.

China needs its shale gas, now. It is of vital importance to China, as well as the rest of the developed world. Everyone is hurt if Chinese demand for petroleum continues to push prices higher and higher, especially when there is an attractive alternative, that China shifts more of its energy consumption to natural gas, produced at home.

It’s a troubling sign that China’s Ministry of Land and Resources continues to delay distribution of the country’s first official shale gas blocks. Its first announcements indicated that only Chinese state-owned energy companies could bid on rights to these shale gas deposits.

My preference would be for China’s government to make it as financially rewarding to exploit shale gas there as it is in the US. It can do this with a mix of tax incentives and various rebates available, for example, to US companies that develop shale gas fields in China. The US oil industry doesn’t bother much with politics. They go where there is money to be made.

China will likely spend over $180 billion this year on oil imports, enriching foreigners in places like Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Based on that uncomfortable fact, and that using more natural gas will cut the environmental damage caused by burning so much coal, the rational policy choice is to do about whatever it takes to get US shale gas producers to come to China and start drilling, fraccing and pumping.

My advice: let it be done, and let it be done soon.