Why China Can’t Replicate America’s Shale Boom

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By Tsvetana Paraskova

China has been betting big on developing its shale gas resources, driven by surging natural gas demand and efforts to boost energy security.  State oil and gas majors have been investing heavily in shale gas development in the key shale provinces and have really boosted shale gas production in recent years.

Although China is estimated to have a lot of shale gas resources, even higher than those in the United States, its shale gas boom has just started. But it could end as early as the middle of this decade because shale gas development in China is more difficult and more expensive than in the United States.

Unlike the U.S., China is subsidizing the development of unconventional natural gas, and it has recently extended subsidies on all unconventional production through 2023 and, for the first time, included tight gas as an unconventional natural gas source eligible to receive subsidies.

The Chinese government has directed state oil and gas majors, including the biggest companies, PetroChina and Sinopec, to work to significantly boost their natural gas production, including from shale formations, as Beijing looks to bolster its energy security amid rising demand for natural gas.

Unlike in the U.S., the development of shale gas resources in China is much more difficult due to more complex geography and a lack of adequate infrastructure to remote mountainous regions where most of the Chinese shale resources lie. Drilling for shale gas in China requires deeper wells, while fracturing is also tricky because of the mountain terrain and geological constraints.

Still, Chinese state majors have managed to boost conventional and unconventional natural gas production in recent years. Shale gas output has grown by double-digit percentages over the past few years, exclusively due to the national corporations boosting development as per government directive.

Natural gas output in China jumped annually by 13.7 percent in December 2020 and by 9.8 percent in full 2020, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

Sinopec reported in November China’s highest-ever daily output of shale gas at 20.62 million cubic meters in its Fuling shale gas field in the Sichuan province. Earlier this year, the company also completed construction of the first phase of the Weirong shale gas field in the same province.

PetroChina, for its part, plans to double the natural gas output from its shale operations in Sichuan in the next five years.

Shale gas growth is set to drive China’s increase in natural gas production through 2025, Rystad Energy estimates cited by Reuters show.

But after the middle of this decade, the Chinese shale boom could slow because of the challenging geography requiring major technological breakthroughs to extract the resources deep in the ground, analysts tell Reuters.

To further boost production, China is looking to attract investments in shale gas developments by easing restrictions on foreign entities and subsidizing costs.

However, it may have to rely only on its own oil and gas majors for sustaining the shale gas production growth as international oil majors abandoned shale exploration in China years ago.

In 2019, BP became the latest international major to quit drilling for shale gas in China because of poor exploration drilling results.

Commenting on BP’s exit, Xianhui Zhang, Wood Mackenzie Eastern Asia upstream research analyst, said at the time:

“We understand that both poor well performance and challenging above-ground conditions contributed to BP’s decision. The difficulties, for both national oil companies (NOCs) and oil Majors, highlight the unique challenges of developing shale gas in China. These include complex and deep reservoir geology, low well productivity, marginal economics and infrastructure constraints.”

One should never estimate the determination of the Chinese authorities to get the targets in five-year development plans achieved, so government support to China’s shale is expected to help production growth. But even the top Chinese state-controlled majors could, in a few years, find investment in conventional gas more worthwhile than sinking funds into shale development, which is more expensive to sustain and more difficult to scale up.

Crude Oil

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