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.
Smart US investors have done well from this surge in US shale gas production. But, there’s an even bigger game in town – the development of China’s shale gas industry. By some estimates, China's shale gas reserves are second only to America's. Things are still at a very early stage in China, like the US 20 years ago. But, if the Chinese government opens its market to the best US shale gas developers, they and their investors will ride the resulting boom for decades.
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 than 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 (NYSE:PTR)and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (NYSE:CEO) bought stakes in North American shale drillers like Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) and EnCana (NYSE:ECA) 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. The companies 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, fracking and pumping.
My advice: let it be done, and let it be done soon.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.