China claims discovery of huge oil reserve Westerners skeptical

March 02, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- In the first announced estimate of the amount of oil beneath Northwest China's huge Tarim Basin, Chinese geologists issued some phenomenal claims this week that immediately prompted deep skepticism from Western oil experts.

In a telephone interview yesterday , Fan Pu, a well-known Chinese geologist who headed the first completed study of the Tarim Basin, said the basin holds almost 15 billion tons of oil.

To put that in perspective, total "proven" world oil reserves -- oil that can be exploited at today's prices and with current technology -- total about 143 billion tons. Independent of the Tarim Basin, China's proven reserves amount to less than 3 billion tons, according to Western estimates.

Mr. Fan, deputy director of a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the central Chinese city of Lanzhou, acknowledged that hisresearch finding was only a preliminary estimate that needs to be worked on for years, though more than Chinese 100 scientists studied the Tarim Basin's geology for five years to come up with the estimate.

Western oil experts cautioned that even if Chinese geologists have found firm evidence of 15 billion tons of oil beneath the isolated, forbidding basin in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, it probably would translate to as little as 1 to 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves by international standards.

Still, that would be enough to increase China's proven reserves by perhaps 50 percent -- a major economic development given the anticipated leveling off of Chinese oil production within the next few years and China's ever-increasing oil consumption.

That amount of proven oil reserves in the Tarim Basin also is thought by Western experts to be sufficient to justify building the world's longest, costliest pipeline to carry the oil more than 2,000 miles to central China, where it can be put to use -- a massive and difficult undertaking still under high-level debate in China.

The Tarim Basin may be the world's largest untapped oil field, but Chinese officials were maintaining as recently as last fall that a definitive picture of the area's potential reserves would take perhaps five more years of research.

"Their figures are very high and very hard to believe," said Donald Clift, head of British Petroleum's office in Beijing.

David G. Fridley, a China oil specialist at the federal East-West Center in Honolulu, added that this week's announcement about the size of the Tarim Basin's reserves reminded him of the late 1970s, when China began issuing claims about its offshore oil reserves to entice investment by foreign oil companies. Those claims turned out be highly inflated.

Though foreign oil companies are more jaded about the potential profits from working in China, many are still enticed by the possibility of participating in developing the Tarim Basin's oil fields.

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