Last Thursday, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) announced a new joint venture with Encana, Canada’s largest producer of natural gas, to develop some of Encana’s holdings in the Montney and Horn River Shales. These are two of North America’s “Magnificent Seven” shale plays, containing an estimated 240 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas—enough to supply China with natural gas for almost 90 years at 2008 levels of consumption.

Of course, with natural gas consumption increasing more than 20 percent a year prior to the economic downturn, no one expects China’s gas needs to remain flat—least of all the Chinese themselves. That is why the CNPC-Encana agreement joins a growing list of Chinese investments in unconventional oil and gas reserves around the world.

The deal with Encana will give CNPC a chance to gain insight from an independent gas company that has some of the longest experience with applying hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract gas from shale formations. In this model, one hand washes the other: major oil and gas companies gain access to the technology and expertise they need to develop unconventional gas, and smaller independent gas companies get access to the sizeable amounts of capital that many have needed in recent years. Taking the time to do initial exploration in other countries and produce gas there sustainably will require deep pockets, so the entrance of state-owned and international oil companies could soon have important effects on the global gas market.

The Chinese energy market represents a major prize for potential future exporters of unconventional oil and gas. This week, Sinopec paid ConocoPhillips $4.65 billion for a 9.03 percent interest in Syncrude, an oil sand project in Alberta, Canada. In March, Petrochina, a CNPC subsidiary, and Shell bid on Arrow Energy, a coal bed methane producer in Australia. Shell also has a major interest in a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal on Australia’s coast, whose product will likely be liquefied coal bed methane almost certainly destined for Chinese markets. Although Shell’s investments in LNG will be affected as the global unconventional gas supply increases, the company seems to be betting on an ever-more-voracious Chinese demand for diverse energy sources.

China itself is thought to have significant untapped unconventional gas potential. CNPC and Shell signed an agreement in March to explore jointly for gas in the country’s Sichuan province, which contains a large shale gas play. The U.S.-China Shale Gas Resource Initiative, announced during President Obama’s visit to China last November, will assess China’s shale gas potential and promote international investment in the country’s gas shales.

Anxiety surrounding China’s access to energy resources has grown in tandem with its gross domestic product. Although the country’s investment in wind and solar energy is rapidly overtaking international competitors, its economy will continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels due to its exploding energy demand. But China’s appetite is quickly outstripping its domestic supply of coal, once considered a secure and inexhaustible, if dirty, source of energy.

As a result, the world has seen China making more and more deals with energy resource suppliers beyond its borders. Recent deals have indicated that the Chinese government’s resource strategy is shifting to a two-way mode: instead of passively buying commodities from Australia, the United States, and other major suppliers, the government is encouraging its industries to leverage their capital either by investing directly in foreign markets or by establishing joint-ventures with local partners. Meanwhile, China has opened its domestic resource market to foreign investors. Through collaboration with foreign companies on oil and gas projects both in China and abroad, Chinese companies hope to acquire the technological expertise that is key to unlocking these resources themselves.

With this updated version of its “opening-up” initiative, China hopes to catch up with industrialized countries not just in terms of the scale of its overall economy but in core competitiveness as well. And with China now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the energy investments it makes today will have a profound influence on the Earth’s future climate.

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China, Climate Change, natural gas