China to Begin Serious Hunt for Shale Gas (SNP, PTR, CEO, RDS-A, CVX, BP, STO, HAL, SLB, BHI, NOV, DVN, CHK)

None of China’s three largest oil companies is having a particularly good year as far as refining profits go. China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (NYSE: SNP) — known as Sinopec — reported a loss of  -$1.9 billion on refining for the first half of 2011. China National Petroleum Corp. and its US-traded subsidiary PetroChina Co. Ltd. (NYSE: PTR) and Cnooc Ltd. (NYSE: CEO) have also been struggling due to the Chinese government’s insistence that the state-controlled refiners sell their gasoline for less than it costs them to make it. The situation forces the big three to look elsewhere — and where they’re looking is at China’s vast projected deposits of shale gas.

The US Energy Information Administration estimates the China sits on top of about 1,275 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, which is about 50% more than the agency’s estimate for US deposits. The Chinese companies are looking for partners to develop the shale gas resources, and the expertise is in the foreign major integrated oil companies, the oil field services companies, and the drillers.

Royal Dutch Shell plc (NYSE: RDS-A) has signed a deal with a small Chinese gas company to explore, making it the first of the major integrated companies to get a toehold in exploration for shale gas in China. PetroChina has also formed a partnership with Shell and both Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) and BP plc (NYSE: BP) are reportedly talking with Sinopec to create exploration joint ventures, and Norway’s Statoil ASA (NYSE: STO) is also seeking shale-gas assets in China.

The start of a boom in exploration for shale gas inevitably begins with the majors because that is their basic business. But it’s difficult to imagine that these companies will get any sort of participatory deal in the production of the gas. More likely is a fee-based deal where the companies are paid their expenses plus a defined amount for every cubic foot produced.

More likely to see bigger profits are the services companies like Halliburton Co. (NYSE: HAL) and Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE: SLB) and the drillers like Baker Hughes Inc. (NYSE: BHI) and National Oilwell Varco, Inc. (NYSE: NOV) with extensive onshore experience. It is unlikely that US producers like Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DEV) or Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK) will derive much benefit from the Chinese push into shale gas development, but if one of the producers does some creative thinking it’s possible.

The good news is likely to last a relatively short time however. Sinopec’s chairman has said that he expects unconventional gas like shale gas and coal-bed methane to drive growth for the company in the future. And getting Sinopec and the others to the point where they are self-sufficient could take up to four years.

And the Chinese certainly intend only to rent the technology they need now and to demand a transfer of technology from its partners so that the partners can be cut loose eventually. This pattern has been played out in solar PV development, wind turbine development, and virtually every sort of information technology development in China.

It’s still very early days in the Chinese shale gas industry. But the broad outline is well-established and well-rehearsed. There’s no reason to expect shale gas development to follow a different script.

Paul Ausick