CHICAGO (Reuters Breakingviews) - China's shale gas ramp-up may surprise the skeptics. Beijing wants drillers to grow output from a standing start to a third of current U.S. levels – around 270 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually – by 2020. That’s a stretch. But on plausible assumptions, the People's Republic could get there within a decade. New discoveries and further joint ventures with the likes of Texas-based FTS International would help.
The development of vast domestic shale resources has taken on fresh urgency as China attempts to shift power generation away from smog-producing coal towards cleaner-burning natural gas. The International Energy agency expects Chinese gas demand to nearly double to 315 bcm a year by the end of this decade. Shale could account for between a fifth and a third of that if drillers hit a government target of 60-100 bcm of production by 2020.
State-backed petroleum giants Sinopec and PetroChina increasingly appear on track to reach an initial goal of 6.5 bcm of shale production by 2015. But from there, they would have to turn up production by an aggressive 65 percent per year to hit the mid-point of Beijing's longer-term target.
That would be almost double the 37 percent annual production growth their American counterparts managed as U.S. fracking took off between 2005 and 2010. And they didn't have to contend with China's mountainous terrain, water shortages and underdeveloped infrastructure.
More plausibly, if China could match the growth rate the United States achieved during the early years of its boom, Beijing's shale gas target would be in reach within a decade. There's plenty of manpower to throw at the problem, and the PRC is also gaining access to needed engineering know-how, for example though the partnership struck with fracking specialist FTS this week.
Better-than-expected output at a recently discovered gas field in Sichuan Province has convinced the usually-conservative IEA that China might get half way to its long-term target by 2020. That already implies production growth rates ahead of the United States. It's another reason to think Chinese shale may bring an American-style surge of gas sooner than the doubters expect. Other things being equal, that would pile further pressure on the fuel sources that were the big losers in the U.S. shale boom – dirty coal and pricey liquefied natural gas.
- The International Energy Agency said on June 10 that China might be able to achieve half of its 2020 target of boosting shale gas output from virtually zero to 60-100 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.
- The global energy watchdog also said it had grown more optimistic about China's short-term drilling prospects. State-run oil producers Sinopec and PetroChina recently announced new shale growth forecasts that would exceed a government target of 6.5 bcm of shale production by 2015. The IEA had previously been skeptical of that target.
- U.S. shale gas production is forecast to hit about 270 bcm this year, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, up from about 20 bcm in 2005.
- Hydraulic fracturing services group FTS International said on June 10 that it had entered into a 15-year joint venture with Sinopec. FTS, based in Texas and formerly known as Frac Tech Services, said it was the first collaboration of its kind.
- Reuters: PetroChina hikes shale gas spending to more than $1.6 bln – sources
- IEA release: bit.ly/TPBl2m
- FTS release: bit.ly/1xQfkQC
(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
(Editing by Richard Beales and Katrina Hamlin)