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Could Chinese Shale Mean the End of U.S. Shale Gas Boom?

By Pierre Bertrand | December 12, 2011 5:47 PM EST

China‘s natural gas industry is still developing, but already it is showing signs that worry some players in the U.S.

Last week, Royal Dutch Shell and Chinese officials announced the company found shale gas in two wells in the Shichuan province, and that production was overall positive. That was coupled with reports that China‘s state-run PetroChina was producing more than 10,000 cubic meters of gas from 20 wells in the province, according to the Business Monitor International.

The news was met with some trepidation, fostering fears among U.S. players that a strong Chinese domestic natural gas industry will cut global demand for liquified natural gas and natural gas exports — effectively killing the U.S. shale gas boom.

IHS Global Insight, in a report published this month, expects a large portion of U.S. growth will depend on natural gas exploration and production. By 2035, the industry is expected to support 1.6 million jobs and bring in $231 billion to the country’s GDP — that’s a 203.9 percent increase from last year.

But John Felmy, chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute, said as long as the U.S. natural gas market remains isolated from the rest of the world, China’s developing natural gas industry is unlikely to hurt the U.S.

Unlike the oil industry, which is linked extensively to the rest of the world, natural gas is less connected, he said. This protects the country’s natural gas industry from foreign players like China, whose natural gas resources are believed to be larger, Felmy added.

But if the U.S. starts trading more natural gas and establishes more connections with the Asian country, Felmy said he suspects analysts would worry that China could gain a productive advantage like it has done with other products it exports to the U.S., and that could come back to hurt the local natural gas industry.

Andrew Snyder, editorial director of Insiders Stragety Group, a financial research firm based in Baltimore, said the U.S. is facing a natural gas glut and in trying to relieve it, the idea of exporting it to overseas markets is growing, and that includes China, the world’s top energy consumer.

But if China starts developing its own natural gas industry, the country will not need foreign imports, leaving the U.S. with increasing supply and nowhere to ship it. Snyder said he suspects natural gas prices are going to fall and keep falling as Chinese and European natural gas plays pick up speed. This invariably would slow the domestic natural gas boom seen in the U.S. Northeast, Northwest and Texas.

“If we lose that, it’s not going to be doom and gloom, but it’s not the big boom people are expecting,” Snyder said. “[The boom] is not going to be as euphoric as many people think.”

China by 2015 expects to produce 6.5 billion cubic meters, or 229.54 billion cubic feet of natural gas. That same year, Chinese government officials say the country will have roughly 7 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas with an additional 35.3 trillion cubic feet in reserves, according to The China Perspective, an online Chinese financial news publication.

The Center for American Progress, in a report published in October, said China has 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale natural gas reserves, compared to 862 trillion cubic feet the U.S. has in reserves.

“After a while, we are going to hit a saturation point,” Snyder said, adding that natural gas in the in the U.S. would have to reflect the dropping prices.

The U.S., however, can look to be ahead for a while longer. Given the amount of time it took the U.S. to start tapping into its shale deposits, Snyder believes that it won’t be for another decade before China gets on the ball and taps into its own resources.

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