China preps for first gas from Russian pipeline
China is a month away from getting its first Russian pipeline gas deliveries, which will help fuel the largest urbanized area in its North while also fueling speculation of what it will mean for liquefied natural gas imports into the country.
Start-up of the Power of Siberia project — with its five-year gas field development and pipeline construction costs reportedly in the $50 billion range — comes just as China’s rapidly expanding gas demand is slowing down, blamed on weakened growth in the country’s economy.
The pipeline in its first full year of operation is expected to move an average of just less than 500 million cubic feet of gas per day, or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas supply in 2019, according to Platts Analytics and China’s National Development and Reform Commission.
But once the line reaches full capacity, expected in 2022-23, it could be transporting more than 3.6 billion cubic feet of gas per day, or about 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs for 2022, according to Platts’ estimates.
A source with one of China’s major city gas suppliers told Platts the company would consider reducing LNG imports into northern China once Russian gas is available. Two Chinese end-users said they were considering reselling some of this winter’s LNG cargoes into the spot market.
PetroChina expects the new pipeline supply to start Dec. 1, the state-owned major said Oct. 17. The initial northern section of the line will deliver gas to northeastern China and its Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the country’s biggest winter-demand center.
With the small volume of gas moving through the line at start-up, the impact on the Chinese market will be limited this winter.
The full pipeline route, at more than 2,000 miles when completed, will end in Shanghai. PetroChina’s parent company, China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, signed a 30-year deal in 2014 with Russia’s Gazprom. Financial terms and prices have not been disclosed.
Longer term, “price will become one of the decisive factors for the amount of LNG imports,” Ling Xiao, a senior executive at CNPC, said at an LNG conference in Shanghai in April.
“Opening of the Russia pipeline will pose further threat to LNG imports,” he said. “We are hoping for cheaper and shorter-term LNG contracts and only in that way can LNG be truly competitive.”
The pipeline start-up comes as China’s double-digit growth rate in gas consumption is slowing down. Gas demand is expected to grow 10 percent this year, down from an average 17 percent in each of the past two years.
“Due to the macroeconomic situation and the government easing its push for the coal-to-gas (switching) program, China’s gas consumption growth is slowing,” said an official of state-run Sinopec Gas on Oct. 15, reading prepared remarks on behalf of Wu Gangqiang, the firm’s deputy chief economist, as reported by Reuters.
Last year, China consumed about 10 trillion cubic feet, or tcf, of gas, with 56 percent coming from domestic production and about 26 percent from LNG imports. The rest was pipeline gas from Central Asia and Myanmar.
Due to government price controls, importers lose money on much of the gas they bring in, which often costs more than they can charge for it on the domestic market. PetroChina reported it lost $3.09 billion (U.S.) on its gas import business in the first nine months of 2019. It lost $3.7 billion in all of 2018. The company has a mandate to ensure ample domestic supplies — even if that means selling at a loss into the price-regulated market.
The government and gas importers would like to cut those losses by boosting domestic production from shale fields.
“China’s reliance oil and gas imports is growing too rapidly, with oil topping 70 percent and gas moving toward 50 percent,” Lin Boqiang, director of the Energy Economics Institute at Xiamen University, was quoted by Reuters in September.
The government has introduced a subsidy program to promote gas production from tight formations and has extended existing subsidies for production from shale and coal-bed methane, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in October. PetroChina and Sinopec have committed to produce a combined 2.1 billion cubic a day of shale gas by 2020, which would be double the country’s 2018 shale gas production.
China, however, appears to be counting on inflated forecasts of domestic gas production, according to a Sept. 30 report on Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the U.S. government.
China’s leadership has predicted a 20-fold increase in shale gas output by 2035, which could require over 500 new wells per year between 2019 and 2035. The numbers suggest the government is sticking with unrealistic targets, according to the radio commentary.
“These numbers do look very, very high relative to what has been done so far in developing shale and tight gas,” said Mikkal Herberg, of the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.
China’s technically recoverable shale gas resources are estimated at 1,115 tcf, just behind the United States at 1,161 tcf, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But shale drilling in China faces hurdles, the EIA said: Shale formations are in mountainous terrain where infrastructure is non-existent; drilling costs are higher; regulatory support is limited; and water supplies needed for fracking are scarce.
To help boost gas production, Chinese President Xi Jinping has a plan to merge the tens of thousands of miles of pipelines held by three state-owned oil and gas giants into one new company. The firm — informally known as National Oil &Gas Pipeline Co. — would aim to attract private investors to help expand the pipeline network and diversify supply.
An independent company would be more likely, in theory, to decide on new routes based on national need rather than what serves an individual producer, according to a Bloomberg report in October.
Larry Persily is a former Alaska journalist, state and federal official who has long tracked oil and gas markets and projects worldwide. He is the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Journalism and Public Communication.