China Targeting Huge Shale Gas Reserves Amid Challenges

National Geographic – challenges lie ahead in China’s effort to replicate the U.S. shale gas revolution. Early indications are that China’s shale geology is different. And above ground, China lacks the extensive pipeline network that has enabled the United States to so quickly bring its new natural gas bounty to market. A daunting issue is whether water-intensive energy development can flourish in China given the strains the nation already faces on water and irrigation-dependent agriculture.

There has been new shale gas techniques (propane gel) that does not use water for fracking and other techniques that use a lot less water.

A planned shale gas drilling project in New York state has drawn global attention for its aim to make use of a waterless form of hydraulic fracking – a new technique designed to reduce the pollution associated with controversial natural gas drilling processes. The project (in the Marcellus Shale) is focused on using a technology that pumps a thick gel made from propane into the ground as opposed to using traditional methods of hydraulic fracking that make use of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to extract natural gas reserves from deep shale formations. Unlike traditional technologies, the gel from the new liquefied propane gas (LPG) fracking method reverts to vapor while still underground, and as a result returns to the surface in a recoverable form.

Propane/butane gel could very well become the shale ‘treatment of choice’ in all countries because of its many technical and environmental benefits relative to large volume ‘slick’ water fracking techniques.

On June 9, state-owned oil giant Sinopec started drilling the first of nine planned shale gas wells in Chongqing, expecting by year’s end to produce 11 billion to 18 billion cubic feet (300 to 500 million cubic meters) of natural gas—about the amount China consumes in a single day. It’s a small start, but China’s ambitions are large; by 2020, the nation’s goal is for shale gas to provide 6 percent of its massive energy needs.

The flood of new natural gas onto the U.S. energy market has been a key factor in displacing coal. Coal’s share of U.S. electricity production has dropped from almost 50 percent to 34 percent in just three years. Largely as a result of that trend, the United States is on track for its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 to be 11 percent lower than in 2005.

China has the world’s largest “technically recoverable” resources—with an estimated 1,275 trillion cubic feet (36 trillion cubic meters). That’s 20 percent of world resources, and far more than the 862 trillion cubic feet (24 trillion cubic meters) in estimated U.S. shale gas stores.

But not all shale deposits are alike. The best targets are marine deposits, formed by millions of years of heat and pressure from dead organic material that mixed with mud at the bottom of ancient seas. The decay produces methane, the main component of natural gas. Experts say Sichuan Province and the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang Province in the northwest hold promising marine deposits. Five other areas identified by the EIA as potential shale plays in China, including Inner Mongolia’s Ordos Basin and parts of northern China, are more likely to hold non-marine deposits, lacking the rich stores of organic material. Still, from initial drilling in the more promising regions, “we know there’s [at least] 6 to 8 trillion cubic meters of recoverable shale gas and maybe more” in China

State-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) entered into a joint venture with U.S. shale gas leader Chesapeake Energy two years ago, in a move experts viewed as a bid to gain access to expertise. In January, Sinopec, China’s number two oil company, purchased a one-third stake in industry pioneer Devon Energy for $900 million and commitment to cover $1.6 billion of future drilling costs.

But it’s unclear how much access to shale gas technology China will gain through those deals.

The smaller independent North American gas companies likely welcome Chinese investment, because their own finances have been pummeled by the low natural gas prices their own operations have wrought. But it will be deals with the big international oil companies on China’s own turf that likely will bring shale gas expertise to the world’s largest energy consumer, experts say. In March, Shell* signed the first shale gas production-sharing agreement ever in China, with state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), also known as PetroChina. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and the French company Total also have embarked on shale gas partnerships in China.

In its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), China set the goal of producing 229.5 billion cubic feet (6.5 billion cubic meters) of shale gas by 2015; the United States produced about 30 times more shale gas in 2011. But while the U.S. shale gas revolution amounted to roughly a seven-fold increase in production in the past five years, China’s aim is to ramp up shale production at least ten-fold between 2015 and 2020.

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