The recent air quality Red Alert issued by Beijing on December 8, 2015 has again drawn everyone’s attention to China’s notorious air pollution caused mainly by burning coal. As a cleaner alternative to coal, natural gas has become a focus of China’s energy reform. In 2014, the Chinese State Council announced an ambitious target of increasing natural gas consumption from around 6% to above 10% of the total energy mix by 2020. Despite China’s determination, the road to a natural gas boom will likely be bumpy due to the risk of timely supply development and the challenge of forming a competitive market.
To support the projected growth of natural gas consumption, China is counting on its unconventional shale gas resource. China has the largest shale gas resource in the world (almost twice the size of shale resources in the United States), but development has been slower than expected. By the end of 2015, the production capacity of Fuling shale gas—the only shale gas field under commercial development in China—had just reached 0.48 bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day), less than 3% of the country’s total natural gas consumption. China also lowered its 2020 shale production target by half to 2.9 bcf/d. Even with a lower target, to increase the shale gas production sixfold in 5 years will require tremendous investment and innovation that will need to equal or exceed the shale gas revolution in the United States. Whether shale gas will become the main driver for natural gas consumption in China is still uncertain.
In addition to domestic production, China also needs natural gas imports through pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG). China currently operates two pipelines that import natural gas from Central Asia and Myanmar. The China-Myanmar gas pipeline has been severely underutilized since it began operation in 2013. The Central Asia Gas pipeline has also experienced frequent winter supply disruptions. Although a new pipeline from Russia will increase the import capacity, the lack of stable pipeline import will likely persist due to the geopolitical uncertainty. On the LNG side, since the regional LNG price is currently linked to oil prices, high price volatility will be a constant challenge to Chinese buyers. The current low LNG prices also pose challenges for LNG suppliers looking at serving the Chinese market. In general, cost and supply reliability are the two major factors that serve to place a cap on future levels of natural gas imports in China.
Chinese Market Development
The lack of a competitive market is perhaps the biggest challenge to China’s natural gas industry. Unlike in the United States, where natural gas prices are determined by the market, Chinese natural gas prices are determined by the national government. Since the natural gas prices do not promptly reflect market dynamics, natural gas sellers often have to operate at a loss while natural gas consumers sometimes prefer cheaper alternative fuels. In addition, China also needs a robust natural gas transportation system that can distribute natural gas in a timely and efficient way across its vast area. Currently due to the limited access to pipeline gas and lack of storage facilities, gas shortages are common. The recent gas supply crisis in Beijing highlights the vulnerability of the natural gas system. Whether China can boost gas consumption will depend on infrastructure development and market maturation.
2015 marked China’s slowest growth rate of natural gas demand in more than a decade, casting further questions on the prospect of achieving the country’s national target by 2020. Unless immediate actions are taken to address the challenges on both the supply and demand side of the Chinese market, the role of natural gas to fight air pollution might yet prove some ways off in the future.