When discussing economic and population growth in the developing world, a cellphone metaphor is often invoked: usage has expanded faster than emerging nations have been able to build out landline networks.
Leapfrogging legacy technology is a theme that resonates across many sectors in the developing world, as improvement in the quality of life worldwide is enabled by the latest innovations.
China now hopes to embrace this thinking in the realm of energy. As demand rises commensurate with its higher living standards, the "end of the landline" paradigm is being extended to unconventional oil and gas drilling.
In recent years, Chinese state-run oil companies CNOOC and Sinopec have completed a spate of multibillion-dollar joint ventures with leading North American shale drillers, including Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy, as well as CNOOC's outright acquisition of Canada's Nexen for $15 billion.
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The deals could stand based solely on Chinese national oil companies' making sound investments for their portfolios. But they could prove more important to the country's dreams of fueling a shale boom and keeping up with its rising energy consumption—applying the technological innovations that have led to the era of U.S. energy independence to a potential unconventional oil and gas bonanza in China.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has cited technically recoverable shale gas resource in China at 1,275 trillion cubic feet—more than in the U.S. and Canada combined.
While recoverable fossil fuel resource estimates are not the same as actual reserve estimates and should be thought of as the best scientific "guesswork"—two Chinese government agencies and the International Energy Agency offer different estimates of China's recoverable shale resource—China's not going to ignore the opportunity.
"Clearly the hope is that one can leapfrog the technology," said Robert Price, president of International Risk Strategies, which advises on oil and gas exploration and development, and spent decades studying the global energy market at the Energy Department and IEA.
The issue, Price said, is that "shale oil/gas extraction technologies are not as commoditized as cellphone tech."
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