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Feeding the dragon Part 2: China’s shale prospects

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

This is part 2 of an extended article. Read part one here.

The shale prize: more than just Fuling around?

The successful development of a shale gas industry in China is seen as key to curbing energy imports and to improving air quality. China has huge gas reserves/resources, but much of those are more-costly unconventional resources, often located in remote and difficult areas. Progress in shale gas development to date has been fairly slow. The pace of activity picked up in 2013, with 60 shale gas wells completed, up from 40 wells in 2012.16

Sinopec has made the most progress with shale, particularly so at its vast Fuling development in the Sichuan Basin. Sinopec has drilled 79 wells at Fuling and expects to drill 100 more in both 2014 and 2015, aiming to have commercial shale gas production capacity of 5 billion m3/yr (~175 billion ft3) by 2015, and as much as 15 billion m3/yr (~530 billion ft3) by 2020.17 The wells have been relatively high cost (as much as US$ 16 million per well), but Sinopec is confident that cost can be reduced by half.18

Other shale activity has included CNPC drilling 50 shale gas wells in the Sichuan and Yunnan Basins, and it is expecting to drill 50 wells in 2014 and 60 wells in 2015, targeting production capacity of 2.5 billion m3 (~90 billion ft3) by 2015 and 7 billion m3 (~250 billion ft3) by 2020. CNPC is thought to be more interested in tight gas, rather than shale gas. The smaller regional player, Shaanxi Yanchang, has drilled 39 shale wells, while CNOOC has drilled four wells and numerous other smaller companies have collectively drilled 117 wells.19

IOC participation and critically, North American shale experience, has been a key factor in China’s shale development programmes. Since 2007, the two NOCs most interested in shale development, Sinopec and CNPC, have together developed strategic relations with nine IOCs to conduct joint shale gas studies and assessments, as well as to conduct joint exploration and development operations, in 16 separate blocks or developments. Sinopec’s partners have included: BP, Hess, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total and ConocoPhillips. CNPC’s partners have included: Newfield, Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Hess.20

The optimism around China’s shale gas prospects was undoubtedly clouded however, by the announcement in early August that China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) was drastically cutting its shale gas production target for 2020 from an original goal of 60 to 100 billion m3 (2.1 to 3.5 trillion ft3) to 30 billion m3 (1.1 trillion ft3). Consultants at Wood Mackenzie are even more cautious regarding China’s shale gas potential, expecting growth to be slower and more challenging, possibly reaching 12 billion ft3 (about 425 billion ft3) by 2020, with around one-third of the total coming from Fuling.21

Encouragingly, government policy incentives supporting shale gas development have included:22

  • Production subsidies of RMB 0.4/m3 of gas produced 2012 to 2015, reduction of/exemption from royalties, exemption from import duties on shale gas equipment.
  • Classification of shale gas as a ‘new mineral resource,’ reducing some regulatory burdens for exploration licenses and exploitation rights.
  • Under the 12th Five Year Plan, giving rights to owners of oil and gas mineral rights the right to explore for and extract shale gas.
  • Some reform of city gate gas prices – more closely pegged to market rates.
  • Classification of the shale gas industry as a ‘strategic emerging industry,’ making it eligible for certain financial support and tax incentives.
  • Nevertheless, the principal challenges for shale gas in China include:
  • Deeper plays – typically 3000 - 5000 ft, compared to typical US plays of 1000 - 3000 ft.
  • Remoteness and very difficult terrain in many areas.
  • Several densely populated regions, notably Sichuan.
  • Water intensity of shale development, with severe water supply challenges in several areas, notably the Tarim, Ordos and North China Basins.
  • Lack of/insufficient infrastructure (i.e., pipelines) in many areas – distance from markets of many potential supply regions and insufficient access to more attractive coastal markets.
  • Insufficient oilfield equipment and technical expertise; limited role so far for the international OFS ‘majors’.
  • Complex supply chain logistics, particularly for water, but also more generally in transporting supplies and equipment in difficult terrains.
  • High well drilling/completion costs – typically as much as two times more costly than a conventional Chinese gas well and three times more costly than a US unconventional well – and generally three times longer to drill. The cost disadvantage will however, be somewhat offset by the fact that shale gas will compete as the marginal gas supply with relatively high-cost imported pipeline gas (from Central Asia and presumably after 2020 from Russia) and with high-cost imported LNG.
  • Uncertainty around pace of price reform; the latest round of gas price increases was announced in early August by the NDRC.
  • Limited participation of entrepreneurial private players, both international independents and smaller Chinese companies.
  • NOC corporate structures are not particularly nimble or decisive, with conditions likely to be somewhat impacted by recent anti-graft investigations.

China’s first two shale tenders were generally seen as disappointments: the available blocks were generally seen as not particularly attractive, bidding was limited to Chinese companies and some of the successful bidders had very limited upstream experience. A third shale tender had originally been scheduled for late-2013, but has been postponed and may be conducted in late-2014. It is expected to be open to Chinese companies, including companies with foreign partners, and is expected to include some blocks close to higher-quality shale blocks in Sichuan. Different this time is that the bidding process will be managed by local governments, rather than the MLR. Whether this change will work to the benefit of private and/or foreign investors is too early to tell.23

However, despite sustained optimism in some quarters, particularly from the two shale NOCs, Sinopec and CNPC, prospects of meeting the revised target in 2020 still look uncertain. With the inevitable distractions consequent upon the anti-graft investigations, and given that the international majors are generally tightening their capital spending budgets, it may take some time before shale gas is a material part of China’s energy mix. 


1. International Monetary Fund, ‘World Economic Outlook Database’, (April 2014).
2. US Energy Information Administration, ‘China Analysis Brief’, (4 February 2014).
3. EY analysis of data from Derrick Petroleum.
4. US Energy Information Administration, ‘China Analysis Brief’, (4 February 2014).
5. Oil & Gas Journal, ‘Worldwide Reserves and Production’, (December 2013); and BP plc, ‘Statistical Review of World Energy 2014’, (June 2014).
6. US Energy Information Administration, ‘International Energy Outlook’, (September 2014).
7. Ibid.
8. US Energy Information Administration, ‘China Analysis Brief’, (4 February 2014).
9. BNP Paribas, ‘China Oil & Gas – Accelerating Transformation’, (24 June 2014).
10. China Ministry of Land and Resources, as reported by BNP Paribas, ‘China Oil & Gas – Accelerating Transformation’, (24 June 2014).
11. EY analysis of data published in EY’s Global Reserves Report, (September 2014).
12. EY analysis of data compiled by Derrick Petroleum.
13. Ibid.
14. Wood Mackenzie, ‘Shell signs first shale PSC in China’, (March 2013).
15. US Energy Information Administration, ‘South China Sea Analysis Brief’, (7 February 2013).
16. BNP Paribas, ‘China Oil & Gas – Accelerating Transformation’, (24 June 2014).
17. China Ministry of Land and Resources, as reported by Paribas.
18. JP Morgan, ‘Sinopec Corp.’, (10 June 2014).
19. BNP Paribas, ‘China Oil & Gas – Accelerating Transformation,’ (24 June 2014).
20. Ibid.
21. Wood Mackenzie, ‘China halves 2020 shale gas target to 30 bcm’, (August 2014).
22. BNP Paribas, ‘China Oil & Gas – Accelerating Transformation’, (24 June 2014).
23. Forbes Asia, ‘China’s Coming Shale Gas Auction Offers Little Hope to Private Investors’, (7 August 2014).


This article was published in the December 2014 issue of Oilfield Technology, which is available for subscribers to download here.  

Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn

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