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From copper to iron to oil, China is the world's leading importer of almost every raw mineral. Wary of the risks this dependence brings, Beijing is looking ever inward to exploit the mineral wealth of its interior, including the politically contentious and technically challenging Tibetan Plateau. The most recent development is a 7-kilometer deep borehole drilled by Chinese resource exploration teams. The exact location of the borehole, the deepest ever drilled at such a high altitude, as well as the companies involved in the exploration are being kept secret.
The Plateau is estimated to contain 30-40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and billions of tons of high-grade iron ore—it is also estimated that the Plateau's Qiangtang Basin contains upwards of 70 billion barrels of oil, potentially making it the largest such reserve on the planet. If these estimates are even remotely accurate, the rewards for Beijing will be enormous.
The Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest plateau on Earth, with an average elevation of more than 4,500 meters above sea level. Mineral extraction faces a series of technical roadblocks if Beijing hopes to move these resources from the interior to the coast for refining and consumption.
"Tibet's altitude and geology make it among the world's most difficult drilling locations. Fragmented [geological] structures, prone to collapse, increase the risks," said Professor Li Haibing, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Geological Services.
The high altitude makes oxygen scarcity a serious complication for workers, with even light work turning into a strenuous endeavour. Additionally, the Plateau is located thousands of kilometers from the industrialized coast and suffers a lack of basic infrastructure, let alone the complex framework required for large-scale extraction operations. Due to the technical difficulties of the region, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the last unexplored inland territories on the planet.
But this is not deterring Beijing. While Chinese SOEs have been in the area for over a decade (CNPC began exploring in 1995), there is a new push to see the region developed. Beijing is reviewing a proposal for a new "deep-earth" exploration project that was submitted by some of China's most prominent geologists. As the name would imply, the project involves drilling more than 10 kilometers into the Plateau in order to obtain samples for study. Even if the samples are promising, development of these resources is going to be technically challenging and China does not have a good track record in this area—it has had difficulty tapping its vast shale gas deposits without the help of Western IOCs.
One point of concern that has been raised is the potential for water contamination. The Plateau is also known as the "water tower of Asia," feeding many of the regions critical rivers as well as holding 30 percent of China's freshwater resources. Develop these resources incorrectly, and it could negatively impact hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.
The Tibetan Plateau may be a mountain of money, but it's too early to tell. Geological uncertainty, technical difficulty, water vulnerability, and politics all complicate production prospects. As Beijing chases self-sufficiency, we can only hope that they don't cut corners.
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Written by Rory Johnston at Oilprice.com.