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Natural Gas Fracking May Be the Only Industry in China That’s Developing Slowly

It has the largest shale gas reserves in the world, but China is slow to push for fracking

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In China, most electricity comes from coal power plants. A turn to natural gas could help limit carbon dioxide emissions. Photo: Puuikibeach

In China, everything is booming. Last year, the country’s worst-performing year in more than a decade, the economy grew by a more-than-respectable 7.8 percent. China is now the number two economy in the world, and this rampant growth has brought a surge in pretty much everything you can think of. The soaring need for materials and energy has sent the country racing to build natural resource, energy infrastructure and housing on a massive scale.

Early last year, says The Week, the Ark Hotel, a 30-story building, went up in just over two weeks. In the housing industry, says the Daily Mail, there are plans to build “20 cities a year for the next 20 years.”

China is the world’s largest producer of wind power. And, already the second-largest solar energy provider, China is looking to “double its installed capacity for solar electricity” by the end of the year. Even after a recent turn away from coal power, the country is still planning hundreds of new plants.

Against this backdrop, the Guardian reports that China could become one of the world’s largest players in the fracking industry: there are massive stores of natural gas in shale rock formations across the country.

n 24 October white paper on energy development released by China’s top cabinet… “calls for ramping up the industry and pumping 6.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from underground shale formations by 2015.”

“The model for China’s anticipated success is the US shale gas sector,” the article states. “Geologists estimate the nation’s recoverable reserves at about 25 trillion cubic meters, on par with the United States.”

…In order to reach the government’s annual shale gas production goal of 6.5 billion cubic meters by 2015, as many as 1,380 wells will need to be drilled across the country, requiring up to 13.8 million cubic meters of water, an industry source told Caixin.

But though the potential is there, says Nature, the government seems to be taking its time on the push to frack. China hasn’t had that much that experience with the technique of hydraulic fracturing—of pumping a high pressure sand solution into the ground to crack open difficult to reach methane wells:

“In the United States, it took 60 years and 200,000 wells” to lay the groundwork for the shale-gas revolution. China has drilled fewer than 100 wells, and its geology is different. Many of the Chinese shale formations have a high clay content, for instance, which makes them more pliable and less apt to fracture. Many are also deeper. “We simply have no idea about whether or not the geology is going to produce,” Friedmann says.

Natural gas, burning cleaner than coal, could have strong benefits in terms of mitigating climate change if China put its full force behind it. But fracking has been associated with environmental issues, too. The goal, if and when the country does decide to drill, is for China’s fracking industry to evolve a little more deliberately than the one in the U.S.

China is going to be able to leapfrog over some of the stages that the United States went through,” Banks says. “We are pushing to make sure that it is leapfrogging the environmental impacts as well.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Researchers Find Fracking Might Cause Earthquakes After All
Two Companies Want to Frack the Slopes of a Volcano

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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