While most shale drilling over the past few years has been concentrated in North America, where energy companies have used a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to unlock a bounty of shale oil and gas, the practice is slowly but surely spreading to other parts of the world believed to contain sizable shale resources. Will 2014 be the year that global shale drilling takes off?
2014 poised to be most active year for global shale
According to a new report by Wood Mackenzie, a leading energy research and consulting firm, 2014 is poised to be the most active year for international shale drilling, with oil companies planning to drill some 400 shale wells outside North America this year.
The bulk of international shale drilling this year will be concentrated in Argentina, Australia, and China, Wood Mackenzie says. Some 200 shale wells are scheduled in Argentina, while 60 are planned for China and 25 in Australia. Energy companies also plan to drill 20 shale wells each in Russia and Saudi Arabia, and 12 in Poland.
In Argentina, Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) plans to drill 170 wells in the nation's Vaca Muerta formation in concert with state-owned YPF (NYSE: YPF ) , with whom it recently signed an accord to invest $1.6 billion in developing the nation's shale resources. The Houston-based energy giant was drawn to the formation because of its massive resource potential.
Vaca Muerta, Spanish for "dead cow," is thought to contain 23 billion barrels of oil equivalent, which would make it the fourth-largest shale oil reservoir in the world. If drilling results in the play this year reveal commercial quantities of oil and gas, Vaca Muerta could become a significant contributor to Chevron's long-term production growth.
In China, state-run China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec (NYSE: SNP ) , expects to produce some 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas from a field located in the Fuling district of Chongqing this year. Output is expected to ramp up to 5 billion cubic meters next year and 10 billion cubic meters by 2017. Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) is another major player in the fledgling Chinese shale gas industry. The Anglo-Dutch oil major has partnered with China National Petroleum Corp. to develop shale gas reserves in Changbei, Shaanxi province, and in the Sichuan basin.
What it takes to foster a shale boom
Despite the renewed enthusiasm, most of these countries are unlikely to replicate the success of the U.S. shale revolution anytime soon. In fact, only one in five global regions with substantial shale potential may succeed in producing commercial quantities of oil and gas, according to Andrew Latham, Wood Mackenzie's vice president for exploration research.
That's because it's simply not enough to have sizable shale oil and gas resources in the ground. The existence of a sophisticated infrastructure network, including pipelines, storage terminals, and other necessary physical assets, as well as economic incentives such as favorable and stable tax policies, are also crucial.
Access to large quantities of water -- a crucial ingredient in the fracking process -- and well-established and easily enforceable property rights are also important to encourage investment. In China, for instance, progress has been hindered by the limited availability of water, as well as local companies' lack of expertise with shale drilling techniques.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, high commodity prices are a prerequisite for a full-fledged shale boom, given the relatively high break-even costs of shale drilling. In the U.S., for instance, shale pioneers probably wouldn't have sunk so much capital into acquiring and exploring new tracts of land had oil prices remained low.
The bottom line
As you can see, it takes a lot more than simply having large hydrocarbon resources for shale drilling to flourish. A consortium of economic, regulatory, and environmental challenges will also have to be overcome if countries like Argentina, China, and Russia are to replicate the U.S. shale boom's success.
Over time, however, U.S. technological know-how and expertise should gradually diffuse to other countries, allowing shale drilling to blossom provided the challenges I've mentioned here can be surmounted, and assuming commodity prices remain high.
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