Challenges for shale gas in China

drilling rig at sunset

The shale gas fracking boom in the United States has been a game-changer for the US economy and energy needs. Now other countries are looking to exploit this potential in their own country, and the potential in China is huge. That said, there are also many challenges to making this a reality in China.

In China there’s a giddy feeling that the next energy gold rush is about to begin. Beneath the mountains of Sichuan province, the deserts of Xinjiang, and elsewhere, China contains twice the shale- gas reserves as the U.S., says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. China’s national planners enthusiastically back boosting natural gas production, which accounts for just 4 percent of the country’s total energy mix now. The government wants to double that share by 2015. “There’s a lot of exuberance,” says Zhou Xizhou, who leads the research firm IHS Cera’s China Energy practice. “In Beijing, if you work in energy, you probably receive a shale-gas conference notice every week.”

The impact of a shale-gas boom in China will be enormous, with the potential benefits and likely environmental costs perhaps even greater than in the U.S. So far, though, the output in China has been a trickle because of the challenging geography and the monopolistic structure of China’s oil and gas sector. While about 200,000 of the horizontal wells used in fracking have been drilled in the U.S., China has about 60. China has 1,275 trillion cubic feet of shale-gas reserves, compared with 637 trillion cubic feet for the U.S.

The U.S. shale-gas revolution was launched largely on the flatlands of Texas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and other accessible areas. In China’s mountainous Sichuan basin, “the formations seem to be more faulted and folded, which makes it more difficult and less economic to drill long horizontal well bores,” says Briana Mordick, an Oil & Gas Science Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council and formerly a geologist at Anadarko Petroleum.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. Some environmentalists hate the fracking boom, while others acknowledge that new natural gas tends to replace the much dirtier coal as an energy source, which is a huge plus for the environment. China’s future coal plans have terrified the rest of the world. If they can figure out fracking, perhaps the net gains in carbon emissions can be mitigated.

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