China Shale Boom Fizzles as Clean Energy, Imports Take Lead

China has sharply cut its output target for shale, signaling the country’s drilling boom is fizzling out before it even gets going.

The nation has reduced its goal for the end of the decade to a third of an earlier estimate, as difficult geology, lack of infrastructure and limited exploration rights conspire against shale-gas ambitions. Big gas import deals, a lower oil price and China’s commitment to clean energy are also weighing on shale’s promise.

“It’s a reality check for policy makers who’ve finally realized the shale gas boom may not come as easily as many thought,” said Shi Yan, an analyst at UOB-Kay Hian Ltd. in Shanghai. “Progress has been made in many areas, but none of them are big enough to trigger a shale revolution.”

China, which has the world’s largest shale gas reserves, awarded 18 companies exploration rights in two auctions in 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to replicate the U.S. shale boom and cut its reliance on imports. Only one of these, state-owned energy giant China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., has started to commercially produce the fuel. It’s bigger rival, PetroChina Co., is also producing shale gas from its own reserves.

Earlier this week, China’s State Council, its top decision-making body, cut its 2020 output goal to “over 30 billion cubic meters” from as much as 100 billion cubic meters, confirming earlier reports that China had scaled-back its target.

Attracting Bidders

A third round of auctions, originally expected this year, has yet to be announced. The Ministry of Land and Resources may be delaying the auction as it figures out how to attract the kind of bidders who can deliver on shale, according to Lin Boqiang, director of the Energy Economics Research Center at Xiamen University.

“You have to provide a large number of good-quality shale gas assets in a national auction to attract bidders,” Lin said, adding that wasn’t the case in earlier auctions.

Lin, who is also an independent director at PetroChina, said he expects the auction in the first half of 2015. Sun Jiahai, the land ministry’s Beijing-based spokesman, didn’t answer two calls to his office seeking comment. At the last auction, the ministry gave over a month’s notice for companies to submit their bids.

Russia Deals

Other factors may be contributing to the waning of China’s shale hopes. Lower crude prices since the summer leaves its production more costly by comparison -- Brent, the global benchmark, has fallen 28 percent this year to below $80 a barrel -- while China’s pledge last week to cap carbon emissions by 2030 and turn to renewable sources for 20 percent of its energy lessens shale development as a priority.

Two import deals with Russia this year, which would supply almost a fifth of the gas supplies China needs by the end of the decade, have also reduced the urgency to drill for the fuel, UOB’s Shi said.

Shenhua Group Corp., China’s biggest coal producer, and China Huadian Corp., one of its biggest power generators, were the biggest winners in the second round of auctions.

Shenhua started drilling its first shale gas testing well in June, 18 months after winning the exploration rights, according to a newsletter on the company’s website. Meng Jian, Shenhua’s Beijing-based spokesman, didn’t answer two calls to his office seeking comment.

Higher Cost

Huadian was the biggest winner in the second round with three parcels and said in April 2013 that it planned to invest 1.5 billion yuan ($245 million) on shale exploration that year. The company hasn’t updated the state of play since then and Lin Zhengshan, its Beijing-based spokesman, didn’t answer two calls to his office seeking comment.

Drilling costs in the U.S. are as low as $3 million a well, according to Neil Beveridge, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. The cost for PetroChina and Sinopec are as much as four times that, according to company data.

In one case, it took 89 days to drill a well in Sinopec’s Fuling blocks, versus an 18-day average in the Bakken region of North Dakota, according to Bloomberg Intelligence Energy Analyst Grace Lee. Fuling is considered China’s best shale gas discovery.

While China’s 1,115 trillion cubic feet of reserves are almost double that of the U.S., it plans to produce just 6.5 billion cubic meters of shale gas next year. That compares with the 266 billion cubic meters produced by the U.S. in 2012, according to latest government data. The U.S. drilled over 30,000 shale gas wells last year; China has drilled fewer than 200 since 2012.

China’s shale basins lie beneath mountainous terrain and are much harder to tap than those in the U.S. Still, “people are losing focus by putting too much attention on details such as geology and drilling technologies,” said Xiamen University’s Lin.

“The real recipe for the success story of shale gas in the U.S. lies in its scale and the openness in allowing all players to freely join the game,” he said.

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