Surging gas prices are increasingly drawing new investors to Asia's nascent coalbed methane (CBM) seams, an underutilized energy source that analysts say could meet a sizeable part of the region's gas needs in coming years.
While the technology is still immature and governments in Asia have yet to put in place a policy framework to attract investment, the promise of a new frontier for energy production is forcing big firms, including UK gas producer BG Group Plc (BG.L) and Malaysia's state-owned Petronas PETR.UL, to take notice.
Also known as coal seam gas and once seen as a hazard for underground coal miners, it accounts for about 10 percent of gas output in the United States. But Asia methane stores, estimated at about 2,100 trillion cubic feet, have been largely untapped.
The conventional source of oil and natural gas is getting harder to find. So as companies seek out unconventional sources of gas, coalbed methane is one of the most viable, said John Harris, director of global LNG at Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) based in Beijing.
And with gas prices at where they are now, the economics are also starting to look right.
With the region's appetite for gas growing annually at about 2 percent, CBM could be a viable option. Natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange have risen 54 percent this year to over $12 per million British thermal units (btu).
The new source of gas is being sought after not only as a source of pipeline gas but also as a feedstock for liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in Australia.
Analysts see BG's proposed $13 billion takeover offer for Origin Energy (ORG.AX), Australia's largest producer of CBM, as well as Petronas' $2.5 billion investment in Australian Santos Ltd's (STO.AX) coal seam gas-fired LNG project as the biggest vote of confidence in the industry.
Experts say although it is early to forecast the percentage CBM would make up in Asia's total gas needs, they agree that with the right investment climate, its contribution would be significant.
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CHINA, INDIA AND AUSTRALIA
In China, where there is about 1,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of methane gas, the government has targeted to produce 10 billion cubic meters of CBM by 2010, which would raise its share in total gas consumption to 10 percent from 3 percent in 2006, Merrill Lynch's analyst David Yip said.
Domestic and foreign firms pouring funds into China's coal bed methane sector include state-owned China United Coalbed Methane Corp, China National Petroleum Corp, U.S.-based Far East Energy Corp (FEEC.OB) and UK-listed Green Dragon Gas Ltd (GDG.L).
Amid growing difficulties in securing access to conventional oil and gas projects globally, several of the energy giants, including Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), Chevron Corp (CVX.N) and ConocoPhillips (COP.N) are also locking in CBM exploration rights in China to boost their flagging reserves.
And although the CBM industry is in an embryonic stage in India, which has an estimated 16 tcf of reserves, Reliance Industries (RELI.BO) and state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC.BO) have already begun drilling at coalbed methane blocks.
It could become a valuable addition to conventional gas resources as a means of maintaining supplies or reducing the need to bring in exports from further afield, said Paul Balfe, executive director of ACIL Tasman Consultancy.
That would tend to keep domestic gas prices from rising too strongly because of reliance on LNG imports.
In Australia, where the CBM industry is the most developed compared to the rest of Asia, there are already four different groups jockeying to build coal seam gas-fueled LNG plants in Australia's Gladstone port in Queensland state.
Analysts said mounting interest in Australia's coal seam gas -- which energy consultant Wood Mackenzie Ltd estimates would account for half of the energy supply in Australia's eastern coast by 2020 -- may spark a flurry of consolidation among firms sitting on top of vast reserves of the unconventional fuel.
Plans to use CBM as a feedstock for LNG plants in Australia have led analysts to predict a rise in domestic gas prices, which at about A$3 per gigajoule, are one of the world's lowest.
But due to robust domestic gas demand, the recent enthusiasm to seek CBM in China and India is unlikely to result in a mushrooming of coal seam gas-fuelled LNG projects in these countries, which could cause domestic gas prices to rise.
The governments may not be too pleased with having large amounts of local gas source being sold offshore when they could have been used to reduce the need for LNG imports, said Balfe.
But large amounts of coal seam gas reserves in Indonesia's coal-rich Kalimantan region could lead to the development of new LNG projects in the region, said Nick Davies, chief of Australia's Arrow Energy (AOE.AX), which is one of four firms planning to build coal seam gas-fuelled LNG plants in Australia.
Indonesia signed its first CBM production sharing contract on Tuesday and said it intended to sign several more this year to reduce its dependence on oil and sell more of its huge coal seam gas deposits as LNG on global markets.
Technical challenges to develop such LNG projects include drilling enough wells to sustain the flow of gas for the liquefaction plants, as well as finding ways to store the gas before the LNG plant start up, as CBM wells take a far longer time to reach peak production, analysts said.
Coal seam gas also has a slightly lower heating value compared with conventional gas, but that can be easily resolved by blending it with LPG, CERA's Harris said. The low sulphur and carbon content also makes coal seam gas cleaner to burn than conventional gas.
To be viable, the coal seams need to be within reach of a market or LNG terminal. While drilling costs for coal seam wells are cheaper than offshore gas projects, high extraction costs are still a big hurdle for smaller companies vying with oil majors for a slice of the action.
Most countries, apart from Australia, do not provide any incentives or subsidies for coal seam gas projects. That may be one of the reasons behind the difficulties in achieving large-scale commercial production, said a Hong-Kong based resource analyst who asked not to be identified.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Hong Kong; Editing by Sambit Mohanty)
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