In its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), China set the goal of producing 229.5 billion cubic feet (6.5 billion cubic meters) of shale gas by 2015. Its aim is to ramp up shale production at least ten-fold between 2015 and 2020.
Hills and water have shaped the story of Chongqing, in China’s southwest. At the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, the Sichuan Province city became China’s first inland port open to foreign commerce in 1891. In the 1930s and ’40s, Chongqing served as China’s wartime capital, although the mountain ranges on all four sides provided less of a buffer than hoped against Japanese air raids.
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.
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.
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.