After more than a decade of spectacular growth fuelled by coal, China finds itself sitting on a bonanza of shale gas. Its reserves are the world’s largest, beating even those of the United States. But developing this vast resource won’t be easy, as a bidding last month for shale-gas leases made clear.
To offset some of the coal use that contributes to its status as the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, China wants to boost natural gas from around 4% of the country’s energy mix to 10% by 2020. Much of that gas will be imported.
In 2012, the Chinese government estimated the country’s reserves at 25 trillion cubic meters. China’s leaders resolved to boost annual shale-gas production from near zero today to at least 60 billion cubic meters by 2020. The United States, by comparison, produced more than 150 billion cubic meters in 2010.
In the US, the abundant, cheap gas has displaced coal as a fuel for power plants, contributing to a nearly 4% fall in the country’s fossil-fuel emissions in 2012. If China could repeat that success, the emissions reductions could be globally significant.
Whilst it is almost certain China’s vast shale resources will be developed it is unlikely to happen quickly, says Julio Friedmann, chief energy technologist at the US energy department in California.
“In the United States, it took 60 years and 200,000 wells” to lay the groundwork for the shale-gas revolution. China has drilled fewer than 100 wells, and its geology is different. Many of the Chinese shale formations have a high clay content, for instance, which makes them more pliable and less apt to fracture. Many are also deeper.
“We simply have no idea about whether or not the geology is going to produce,” Friedmann says.