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China plastics sector poised to capitalize on shale gas

By: Steve Toloken

October 19, 2012

BANGKOK (Oct. 19, 3:55 a.m. ET) — China is likely to be the second place in the world, after North America, to tap shale gas reserves as a potential new low-cost feedstock for plastics, one prominent industry consultant believes.

Unlike the United States, however, where announcements of new ethylene crackers tied to shale gas have come in rapid-fire fashion, Chinese companies have said very little.

But Balaji Singh, president of Houston-based consultancy Chemical Market Resources Inc. and a close observer of Asia's petrochemical industry, believes signs point to China moving quickly to take advantage of its sizable shale gas reserves.

"If you look at it in terms of who will be the first to commercialize shale gas and who will be second, No. 1 will be the U.S., but No. 2 will be China because they need new energy sources very fast," said Singh, in a speech at CMR's Flexpo Bangkok conference, held Sept. 17-19 in Thailand.

"China is actively developing shale gas along with coal and oil and other sources," he said.

The shale gas deposits in North America are expected to make its plastics resin manufacturing industry the second-cheapest in the world, after the Middle East, and give it 100 years of additional feedstock supply that "put the U.S. in an advantage[d] position again," Singh said in written materials delivered with his speech.

"It's a rebirth for the U.S. petrochemical industry," Singh said, noting U.S. industry figures of $16.2 billion in new investment as a result of shale gas. "This size of investment and development has never been done in the United States in the last 25 years."

Any Chinese investment is not likely to be immediate. The first North American shale gas-related crackers will not come on-stream until 2016 at the earliest and Chinese firms have not made any similar announcements, meaning their investments are likely to happen after that.

As well, China's most-studied shale gas fields are generally also located in the far northwest of the country, where it is more costly to bring it to sizable markets either within China or internationally.

But that location could help China industrialize those Western regions, a key priority for the country's leadership, Singh said.

CMR consultant Deepak Parikh said that China has not made much noise about shale gas as a plastic feedstock, but he noted that the North American industry similarly said very little before it switched gears and quickly began announcing investments in new ethylene crackers.

For example, he said he was on a panel in 2008 assessing the future of the North American petrochemical industry and no one was predicting the impact of shale gas as a plastic feedstock.

"We were all gloom and doom with respect to the petrochemical industry in North America," he said. "Now with the investments that have been made… that has changed the landscape significantly."

Chinese and global energy companies are actively exploring China’s gas reserves, with Royal Dutch Shell plc, for example, telling Bloomberg news service earlier this year that the country's shale gas potential "could be very powerful."

A 2011 assessment from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said China has 1.275 trillion cubic feet of recoverable shale gas resources, about the same as the United States.

Other analysts have noted potential technical and logistics hurdles for China, though, including a lack of infrastructure and the large amounts of water needed to drill for the gas, a challenge given the country's water shortages.

But China has few fossil fuel reserves beyond coal, and has shown keen interest in using its existing resources to make plastics. For example, one Chinese industry official said in a Flexpo presentation that China's coal-to-olefin capacity is expected to grow to 10 million metric tons by 2015, up from 1.6 million metric tons now.

Singh said many spots on the globe have significant shale gas potential, including Europe, South America, India, Australia and South Africa.   

He said Asian companies need to be ready for the arrival of lower-cost U.S. plastics from shale gas, but one Thai official at Flexpo said petrochemical firms there are not worried, and instead are looking at investments in North America.

"I think we view it as an opportunity for us to participate in the shale gas development in the U.S.," said Siri Jirapongphan, executive director of the Petroleum Institute of Thailand. "We are outward looking rather than on the defensive."