The Great Shale Gas Opportunity in China For Outsiders (BHI, HAL, SLB, NOV, CHK, DVN, SNP, CEO, PTR, RDS-A, CVX, BP)

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The boom in US natural gas drilling resulting from the technological advances of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is beginning to spread to the rest of the world. In some countries, like France, shale gas drilling could be in for a long wait, while in other countries, like Poland and China, development could begin very soon.

China, in particular, stirs a lot of interest because its technically recoverable shale gas deposits are estimated to be about 1,275 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). That’s about 50% more than the estimated 862 Tcf of technically recoverable shale gas in the US. And US companies like Baker Hughes Inc. (NYSE: BHI), Halliburton Co. (NYSE: HAL), Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE: SLB), and National Oilwell Varco, Inc. (NYSE: NOV) with both deep pockets and experience in shale gas exploration and production could get a crack at developing China’s vast shale gas deposits. US producers like Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK) and Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DVN) are less likely partners, but such a deal is not impossible.

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To date, no development of China’s shale gas resources has begun. The government is mulling plans both to offer subsidies to domestic E&P companies and to permit foreign company participation in extracting the gas. China’s approach to allowing its domestic companies to develop shale gas is something of a balance between granting licenses only to big players like Sinopec, formally China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (NYSE: SNP), Cnooc Ltd. (NYSE: CEO), and China National Petroleum Co.’s Petrochina Ltd. (NYSE: PTR) and permitting smaller players to get into the hunt.

The government wants to avoid the development of hundreds of independent companies, as happened with the coal mining industry. The unlicensed coal mines were extraordinarily lethal to miners and riddled with corruption. The central government has fought hard to bring the miners under control in the last two years or so.

The Chinese have no experience or technology to develop their shale gas resources. Royal Dutch Shell plc (NYSE: RDS-A) has already been signed on by one of the two small Chinese companies to win a lease and the company has also formed a partnership with Petrochina.  Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) and BP plc (NYSE: BP) are in discussions with Sinopec to form a partnership as well. Cnooc paid Chesapeake more than $2 billion for rights to participate in developing some Eagle Ford shale leases.

As China’s government continues to explore its options regarding shale gas development, one thing does seem clear. The government is leaning towards a less restrictive approach than it has taken with other hydrocarbon development. The country is also likely to adopt some sort of subsidy policy that would encourage shale gas development. That would be enough to really get foreign companies lined up to go to work.

Paul Ausick