China drills into shale gas, targeting huge reserves amid challenges

Now a new chapter in Chongqing’s history is being written, as hydraulic fracturing rigs assembled this summer in this undulating landscape to drill into one of China’s first shale gas exploration sites

In a just-published piece for National Geographic News, Catherine T. Yang goes into China to look at how it’s working on shale gas development. There are environmental hurdles. And, even with having some scientific and engineering knowledge of many of the advances in drilling technology that has propelled the oil and gas boom in the U.S. over the last five years, it will be difficult for China to be a major player. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and as Yang relates, the Chinese are willing to work hard at it.

“Technology to force natural gas from its underground source rock, shale, has transformed the energy picture of the United States in the past six years, and China—sitting on reserves some 50 percent larger than those of the U.S.—has taken note. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a made-in-the-U.S.A. process that China aims to import,” Yang says.

“On June 9, state-owned oil giant Sinopec started drilling the first of nine planned shale gas wells in Chongqing, expecting by year’s end to produce 11 billion to 18 billion cubic feet (300 to 500 million cubic meters) of natural gas—about the amount China consumes in a single day. It’s a small start, but China’s ambitions are large; by 2020, the nation’s goal is for shale gas to provide 6 percent of its massive energy needs.

“Because natural gas generates electricity with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, China’s primary power source, the hope is that shale development, if it is done in an environmentally sound manner, will help pave the way to a cleaner energy future for the world’s number one greenhouse gas producer. “Clean, rapid shale gas development in China would reduce global emissions,” says Julio Friedmann, chief energy technologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which has been working with the Chinese on environmentally sound fracking practices.

“But challenges lie ahead in China’s effort to replicate the U.S. shale gas revolution. Early indications are that China’s shale geology is different. And above ground, China lacks the extensive pipeline network that has enabled the United States to so quickly bring its new natural gas bounty to market. A daunting issue is whether water-intensive energy development can flourish in China given the strains the nation already faces on water and irrigation-dependent agriculture. Even though there are more questions at this point than answers, China is determined to move ahead.

“‘China now realizes it has incredible opportunity to find another major fuel source other than coal,’ says Albert Lin, chief executive of EmberClear, an Alberta, Canada-based energy project developer that is a partner of China’s largest power producer, China Huaneng Group.

Large Reserves, Uncertain Promise

“Shale gas now makes up 25 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply, less than a decade after Devon Energy and other independent U.S. companies paired high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling to force natural gas from fissures in the soft black rock layer a mile or more underground. Development started near Dallas-Fort Worth, but it has since spread across the country, from Wyoming to Pennsylvania. The process has stirred intense debate over local land, water, and air pollution issues, including the accidental leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

“But the flood of new natural gas onto the U.S. energy market has been a key factor in displacing coal. Coal’s share of U.S. electricity production has dropped from almost 50 percent to 34 percent in just three years. Largely as a result of that trend, the United States is on track for its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 to be 11 percent lower than in 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects.

“In China, where coal now generates 80 percent of electricity, there is great potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions by substituting natural gas. A preliminary EIA assessment of world shale reserves last year indicated that China has the world’s largest “technically recoverable” resources—with an estimated 1,275 trillion cubic feet (36 trillion cubic meters). That’s 20 percent of world resources, and far more than the 862 trillion cubic feet (24 trillion cubic meters) in estimated U.S. shale gas stores.

“But not all shale deposits are alike.”

Go to the link at the subhed (or click here) to read the rest of this in-depth article.

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