While coalbed methane (CBM) development has been ongoing for many years in countries such as the US and Australia, others such as China have made concerted efforts to increase CBM production over the past decade, to dramatic effect, in step with demand for natural gas. Others are still evaluating undeveloped CBM resources. This difference in industry development means that the level of incentives on offer for investors is varied. While some countries no longer need fiscal support to encourage development, others are trying to find the right combination of incentives to overcome obstacles posed by a lack of infrastructure and expertise.

Aspiring CBM industries

China, India, Indonesia and Russia have significant CBM reserves, but exploitation of the resources has been slow to progress. This early stage of development and associated barriers to entry means that fiscal incentives are of greater importance.

In India, the fiscal regime applicable to CBM is similar to the PSA offered for conventional areas, but with some key differences. The profit-sharing formula is very similar in format, but, significantly, the variable upon which it is based differs. While for conventional blocks, the variable used to calculate the government’s share is the investment multiple, the ratio of the cumulative revenue for the licensee, net of up-front payments and operating expenditure, to cumulative capital expenditure, the CBM regime uses a simple average daily production level, hence its name as a production-level payment. Most significantly, however, is the fact that governments’ share of profit, which is the result of the bidding process, is generally much lower for CBM than for conventional blocks. Another key difference is a seven-year tax holiday provided for CBM areas awarded in the fourth CBM bidding round.

In Indonesian PSAs, the first tranche petroleum (FTP) is offered at 5.0% for CBM projects as opposed to 20.0% for conventional gas fields. FTP is an amount of gross production that is set aside to be shared between the government and licensee before any cost recovery. It is shared equally between the two parties and therefore there is essentially a much higher 95.0% cost recovery limit and a small 2.5% royalty. Second, the profit-sharing rate is much more favourable to the licensee; post-tax licensee shares for CBM are around 40.0-50.0%, compared with 15.0-30.0% for conventional areas. Nevertheless, profitability is not assured due to the high development costs caused by the country’s fledgling industry, which simply does not have enough service capacity or expertise for extensive CBM development yet. For pioneer investors, confidence is needed that sale prices will not be so limited domestically, or the produced gas may be exported. Until the industry is more developed, the price will need to be higher or more incentives provided to offset the inflated costs.

Although China has had CBM production for years, the industry has not taken off. The government currently provides a subsidy at a rate of 0.2 yuan/m3, possibly increasing to 0.4 yuan/m3 in the near future. VAT rebates are also available and import duties are waived on related equipment. Additionally, China has used regulations to attempt to encourage industry development, such as requiring cooperation between coal mining companies and gas producers, and ensuring that CBM production occurs prior to coal mining.

Although increased subsidies and fiscal support would improve project profitability, a major obstacle to development is the inability to reach markets through a lack of infrastructure and limiting regulation. Until there is the freedom and the capability to fulfil demand, the restricted sale prices will limit profitability and in turn investment in the technically difficult environment, requiring greater fiscal incentives.

Russia’s large conventional gas resources mean that CBM development was not pursued for a long time.

However, due to the country’s huge coal reserves and significant if not relatively modest production, the environmental impact and safety concerns of coal-mine methane have gradually become big drivers in the government’s desire for development. The CBM production itself does not lend itself well to exportation due to the smaller average field production levels in comparison with the large conventional gas fields not validating large transportation infrastructure. Instead, CBM production is used locally for industry and local populations, freeing up more conventional gas production for export. In 2011, after pressure from Gazprom, Russia added CBM to the Russian Classified Index of Natural Resources and Underground Waters, which meant that it could provide targeted fiscal incentives such as exemption from mineral extraction taxes.

In fact, CBM is currently not considered an object of taxation and therefore, not only is there no applicable MET, but producers do not need to disclose any production data to tax authorities. Fiscal incentives are also provided to the mining companies that cooperate with oil and gas companies to produce CBM, such as deductions for necessary equipment and drilling activities on the MET payable on coal production. Furthermore, the improved safety and environmental impact for future mining activities means that further regulations aimed at cooperation between the two industries has the potential to drive Russian CBM development.

Effectiveness of incentives

When comparing the value of a representative CBM project across different countries, the investment proposition and level of incentive varies across the world. As can be expected, those with well-developed CBM industries have much less significant incentives on offer. The US and Australia have nearly nonexistent incentives and in the significant producing basins, there are none for new wells.

It is also important to note that while the assessment applies a flat gas price across all countries to isolate the effect of the incentives, local market dynamics can significantly alter the economics of CBM projects. In Australia, India, Indonesia and China, the viability of CBM extraction is significantly increased by higher prices. This should particularly help the growth of the Australian CBM sector, with more attractive economics than in the other established areas of the US and Canada.

The picture is more nuanced for areas where CBM is at an earlier stage. While Indonesia, China and Russia have attractive incentives, technical obstacles mean that their incentives are likely to have less of an effect on development. Although India’s combination of tax holidays and improved profit sharing dramatically increases project profitability, its regime still does not compete with countries that have significantly greater resources.

This may mean that the incentives are not sufficient to spur much widespread development.

CBM fiscal incentives have had varied success globally. Their effectiveness is highly dependent on other factors such as the status of infrastructure and the quality of reservoir – where conditions are conducive to development and production, such as in Australia, minimal incentives can have the desired effect.

Unfortunately, for other eastern-hemisphere countries with CBM aspirations, more extensive incentives and regulation will be needed to overcome the initial infrastructure and technical hurdles in order to spur industry development.