China may hold the world’s largest shale gas reserves, but that doesn’t mean that tapping that resource will be easy. American oil major ConocoPhillips just announced that it was throwing in the towel on Chinese shale after concluding a two-year investigation into a Sichuan basin play.
China’s shale development has been dogged by unfavorable geology, water scarcity, and an under-built oil services industry. ConocoPhillips’ decision isn’t so much a surprise as it is confirmation that Beijing’s efforts to catch up to the U.S. shale boom are far behind schedule. In fact, last summer China cut its fracking targets by more than 50 percent as planners acquiesced to the fact that the pace of America’s extraordinary success couldn’t be replicated.
Plunging oil prices have also thrown a wrench into the works, forcing the world’s oil majors to trim capital expenditures by culling higher-risk, underperforming plays (like Chinese shale projects). Li Li, the head of the research team at ICIS China, an energy consultancy, told Bloomberg that “[g]iven the complicated shale formations in China, only the state-owned Chinese energy firms are more likely to pursue their investment in the sector as they see it more as a national strategy.” But of course, China’s domestic firms lack the technical know-how to unlock shale’s hydrocarbons very successfully.
Shale isn’t looking so hale in China.