"It looks so easy in the U.S., but we have independents," he added, referring to the band of small and mid-sized U.S. producers that were nimble enough to spend a decade developing the shale fields through trial and error.
"We also have private mineral rights. You've got thousands of farmers in Pennsylvania who are getting royalties," Stevens noted. "Overseas, including in China, the government owns the mineral rights. It takes years to get contracts; they're not giving contracts to foreigners."
During the 1990s, Exxon, Chevron, Texaco and Phillips all but abandoned exploration projects in the oil and gas-rich Tarim Basin after China steered the best opportunities to its state-owned companies.
Haibing Ma, a China energy expert at Worldwatch Institute, said China is cracking open the door to more collaboration, however slowly.
In Chengdu last month, officials from China's Ministry of Land and Resources and National Energy Administration said the government might set up a regulatory system that treats shale gas differently from conventional oil and gas.
Legal access for outsiders remains unclear
For now, licenses to explore shale gas blocks are for domestic companies only. Last week, the government said a second auction will be held before the end of the year. The ease with which PetroChina, Sinopec or smaller explorers can bring on a foreign partner is still unclear.
"This is something we need to sort out," said Che Changbo, deputy director of oil and gas strategy at the Ministry of Land and Resources.
China demands more energy and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other nation. It remains tethered to coal for 70 percent of its electricity and imports oil to fuel its growing car fleet. Natural gas accounts for about 4 percent of China's energy use today, but, as it stands now, China plans to boost that to 10 percent by the end of the decade.
In the United States, the expansion of the onshore gas resource by advancing drilling technology and bringing to bear huge capital injections into the shale basins has helped accelerate the closure of coal-fired power plants.
While burning gas for power slashes smog-forming and cancer-causing pollutants and cuts carbon emissions in half, observers say China is not about to sideline its existing fleet of coal plants. China has built much of its fleet of modern coal-burning plants in the past five years.
Asia's powerhouse is slowing, as inflation, signs of trouble in China's massive housing stock, and the sustained economic downturn in the United States and Europe pinch. But its economy still expanded at a rate of 9.5 percent in the second quarter.
China is pursuing every resource it can to keep the economy humming. In the case of shale gas, it's about where the United States was in 2001: LNG terminals and international pipelines are being built, until there's greater certainty about shale gas.
"To meet the demand growth, China has a fairly limited number of options," said Thompson of Wood Mackenzie. "Either it continues to attract imported gas, alongside the development of domestic resources, or it sees demand growth flatten by the end of the decade."
Despite half a decade of negotiating and political tension, some analysts say China and Russia's Gazprom will eventually cut a long-term supply deal. But until then, and until shale gas becomes a reality, analysts expect China's national oil companies will import more LNG and negotiate contracts with gas suppliers in Qatar, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
The government has put off gas price reform as it tries to curb inflation. So in August, China offered its gas importers a rebate to narrow the gap between what they spend to buy LNG and what they sell gas for in the domestic market.
The rebate is meant to prod Sinopec, China National Petroleum Corp., which operates PetroChina, and China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) to compete for LNG tankers during energy shortages and gain better access to an Asia-Pacific gas market dominated by demand in Japan and South Korea.