China introduced its ‘Shale Gas Development Plan (2011-2015)’ with targets to produce 6.5 bcf of shale gas production by 2015 and expand production to 60-100 bcm by 2020 – a minimum of 56% growth in production year-on-year. This would require drilling some 20,000 wells and significant investment in both drilling and associated infrastructure.
However, China faces unique challenges compared with the U.S. China’s shale gas is in mountainous terrain and located 1,500m-4,000m below the ground (U.S. is typically 800-2600 m) making for more difficult and expensive access. In addition, the hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques used in the U.S. may not be a perfect or fitting solution for China. Another challenge is the lack of established infrastructure. Accordingly, it is estimated that drilling gas wells may cost 10 times more than in the U.S.
In addition, in the past two years, it is apparent that China’s NOCs have been struggling with the low returns on their investments, causing a big hurdle and a lack of appetite for further investment. But despite the challenges, China has not backed down and its 2015 targets are still a possibility.
On the technological front, it is apparent that Chinese companies have been actively seeking to acquire intellectual property and know-how in the shale-gas industry. Organizations such as CNOOC, Sinopec and Petrochina have recently acquired or invested in North American companies such as Nexen and Devon Energy, suggesting a strategic intent to not only secure a larger E&P foothold globally but to gain intrinsically from a transfer of knowledge.
Sinopec has surprised some industry analysts with recently revised production targets of 1.8 bcm by the end of 2014, 5 bcm by 2015 and 10 bcm by 2017. This represents a 10-fold increase in the target planned for the Fuling Field shale play near Chongqing in Sichuaun province. Sinopec has also developed a series of in-house technologies such as the ‘Model 3000 fracturing vehicle’ of which four of these have already been deployed on-site, as well as fast drilling technologies. Sinopec has also completed commercial mass production of many of these tools and indeed has exported to North America, sometimes at prices 50% below US-manufactured equipment. Perhaps we will see a potential revolution in China’s shale gas industry.