Two recent news stories highlight the significant shifts underway in China's energy sector, along with the global impact that is already apparent from these changes. Last week the Chinese government announced a new estimate for the country's potential resources of shale gas that is nearly double the Department of Energy's latest estimate for US shale gas. However, having the resource and developing both it and the infrastructure and market to take advantage of it are distinctly different things, as I pointed out in a brief interview on the subject on public radio's Marketplace program. The key to that may be found in a front-page story in today's Wall St. Journal describing the recent pace of Chinese investment in the North American energy sector.
When we think about energy in China, we tend to focus on the vast scale of its coal use, which affects local, regional and, at times, trans-Pacific air quality, to say nothing of its huge greenhouse gas impact. Coal made up 70% of China's total energy mix in 2010. Or we might think of the explosive pace of renewable energy deployment, although China's solar industry, and to a lesser extent its wind power industry, are still mainly export-oriented. Non-hydropower renewables, which were identified as a strategic industry within the 12th Five-Year Plan, account for just 0.5% of China's energy, but the government has recently indicated it would rein in the "blind expansion" of such sources. Together with hydro and nuclear, low-emission energy sources account for just 8% of the total, less than half the 18% share of oil, which is likely to continue expanding as the transport sector grows and encompasses more personal cars. That leaves natural gas with just 4% and a much lower profile than in the US, where it supplies roughly one-fourth of total energy.
If the resource figures that were just released are any indication, the potential growth of gas in China may exceed that of all other energy sources over the next several decades. Nor is that growth dependent on shale gas development, which is in its infancy there, with only a few wells having been drilled. China has some conventional gas production and a small but growing coal-bed methane industry, and it is already one of the world's largest purchasers of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Although the shale gas figures might seem like bad news for companies planning LNG exports from the US, or for the enormous new LNG projects in Australia and elsewhere in the region, they could prove complementary in two ways.
First, the current availability of large and growing quantities of LNG in Asia-Pacific provides the basis for developing both the enormous potential gas market in China's coastal industrial centers and the infrastructure for serving it, including the crucial "reticulation system"--what other industries call the last mile. You simply don't build this unless you have a large, reliable supply on hand, and you also don't develop huge new domestic supplies unless they have an assured market. LNG could thus be the key to avoiding a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma that might otherwise retard the growth of gas in China for years.
At the same time, the recently identified shale gas resources solve a major problem for LNG vendors, by reassuring Chinese buyers that they will have access to ample gas to satisfy industrial, commercial and residential demand long after the 20-year or longer LNG contracts expire and the reservoirs feeding the region's LNG plants are depleted. But that's only true if China acquires the expertise for developing its own gas, and that's where its North American energy deals come into play.
The Journal article provides a good overview of how Chinese companies changed their approach to North American oil & gas mergers and acquisitions in the aftermath of CNOOC's failed bid for Unocal in 2005. Chinese investors have learned not to raise the hackles that that deal did, and they have focused on minority shares in oil & gas companies or in specific field developments, mainly in unconventional plays such as the Eagle Ford shale in Texas with Chesapeake Energy. Even if no intellectual capital flows back to the investing companies, the mindset required for selecting and managing such projects surely will, and that will have a direct bearing on China's enormous new shale resources, which if proved up would equate to 230 years of current consumption.
No one can know at this point how durable last week's estimate of 25.1 trillion cubic meters (886 trillion cubic feet--TCF) of undiscovered, technically recoverable shale gas will be. The Energy Information Agency recently cut its previous US shale gas estimate of 827 TCF by 42%, based on updated information on per-well recovery rates and other factors, particularly in the Marcellus formation underlying New York, Pennsylvania and other northeastern states. (Despite being widely publicized by critics of shale development, this adjustment won't have any bearing on actual shale gas output for many years, during which the resource estimate is likely to be further refined many times.) China will gain similar experience as it develops its shale resource and should have a much better handle on its probable size within a few years. As with nearly everything else related to the country's economic development, the number is still likely to be very big.