The United States also has a unique abundance of small independent oil and gas companies with a tradition of risk-taking. China does not have such a ‘wildcatter’ culture, nor does it have the same mechanisms for developing and sharing geological data. Even a simple shortage of drilling rigs could slow things down.
Many expect that shale gas would at first be used in China as a feedstock for the chemical and fertilizer industries, reducing the use of gasified coal. In theory, that could lower the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much 100 million to 150 million tons, or roughly 1–1.5% of the nation’s cumulative carbon emissions, Friedmann estimates.
Some of the climate benefits would be lost, however, if the wells leak methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and a shale-gas rush would raise the usual concerns about air and water quality. Water is scarce in the gas-rich Tarim basin (see ‘Promising grounds’), whereas the Sichuan basin is heavily populated.
Groups such as the Clean Air Task Force, in Boston, Massachusetts, are encouraging companies and officials to adopt drilling practices that will minimize environmental impacts. Jonathan Banks, the force’s climate-policy coordinator, says that the goal is to help China avoid mistakes made in the United States.
“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.”