Competing with the Rest: China’s National Oil Companies

China's national oil companies have a new approach for competing in the global oil & gas industry; operating more like private companies than state-owned enterprises.

Historically, emerging economies with oil and gas resources in need of development lacked the technological expertise to do so—especially in the cases of more complex and demanding unconventional reserves like offshore, heavy oil or shale.

The expertise was held largely by international oil companies (IOCs), so these countries’ national oil companies (NOCs) would team up with the IOCs, offering them production sharing in return for their expertise.

It usually worked. Take Brazil, for instance. Since IOC-aided discovery of its massive pre-salt offshore deposits a few years ago, Brazil’s NOC, Petrobras, has itself become a leader in deep-sea technology. It’s now come to the point where fewer IOCs are interested in participating. For example, in Brazil’s recent auction for development of its 8-12 billion-barrel Libra field, major players, like Chevron and ExxonMobil, which had previously participated, stayed away from the bidding. Because Brazil now has its own tech expertise, it could afford to alienate some of the IOCs by offering them less-than-lucrative financial returns from production.

On the other hand, countries that froze out foreign investment have been suffering declines. Case in point: Mexico. Oil and gas nationalism ruled when it insisted 75 years ago that its NOC, Pemex, would have an absolute monopoly. Now needing to develop its extensive shale reserves and promising deep water deposits, they’re having to play catchup to allow foreign investment and it’s going to need a constitutional amendment. Or Venezuela where, since blocking out IOCs and allowing only NOCs, development has slowed.

China has a new approach. Its various state-owned oil and gas enterprises—essentially NOCs—have been investing tens of billions of dollars in resources around the world for the past decade: Canada, Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, Brazil, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Mozambique and dozens more. Through its massive investments in all types of exploration and production—both small slices and entire controlling interest acquisitions—it has absorbed enough expertise to nudge into development of its own unconventional resources. These include vast undeveloped shale reserves and huge untapped deepwater deposits in the South China Sea.

Timing is right. China clearly needs to do something. In the face of declining conventional production, China recently became the world’s second largest importer of crude oil, now 59% of its consumption and climbing. And it needs natural gas too, to replace its thousands of spewing coal-fired generation plants.

But China’s shales aren’t directly comparable to highly productive North American ones like Eagle Ford or Bakken. According to the EIA, China’s shale basins are tectonically complex—even seismically active in some places—and producible levels are twice as deep as most US shales. It was reported that PetroChina’s first horizontal shale well took 11 months to drill; in the US it’s more like two weeks. Commercial shale production is miniscule, so some foreign expertise is called for, at least for starters.

An August 2012 deal with Royal Dutch Shell to develop and produce shale gas in southwest China’s Sichuan Basin will serve to initially tap some IOC expertise. But for the longer term, China has its eye on becoming a world player. So late last year Sinopec announced a new specialty subsidiary called Sinopec Oilfield Service Corporation (SOSC).

To give it punch, and to garner the crucial high tech know-how, it was reported in August this year that SOSC was in advanced talks with Weatherford International, a world-leading oilfield services company, aimed at forming a joint venture. The JV would include drilling and well construction, to well completion and equipment fabrication. Significantly, Sinopec would be controlling partner. Weatherford, already active in China with $300 million in revenues from activity there, offers the savvy China sorely needs to develop and produce its unconventional reserves.

As well as domestically, the JV would fortify SOSC’s springboard into international markets, including North America, Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and South East Asia. In fact, SOSC is reported to have already racked up 480 contracts in 43 countries for a total of $14.2 billion.

The evolution of China’s trend-setting NOC approach continues: where it has picked up significant undeveloped acreages, it is now for the first time seeking equity partners to develop them. In October this year Sinopec announced it wanted a partner for its wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary Daylight Energy to develop giant shale reserves in western Canada’s Montney and Duvernay plays. Now acting more like an IOC with its business approach, return on investment is entering the Chinese NOC lexicon.

Graham Chandler

Graham Chandler is a Calgary-based freelance energy writer who contributes regularly to several oil & gas and mining magazines, including Oilsands Review, Saudi Aramco World and Earth Explorer. He held various energy corporate finance positions with international banks and holds degrees in physics, business and archaeology. Connect with Graham on LinkedIn.