London (Reuters) – “I believe and will prove that our country is not deficient in oil reserves. If I can use my 20-year lifetime in exchange for a large oil field, I will.”
Those comments, recorded in an illustrated history of the Songliao Basin published by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), are attributed to Wang Jinxi, an oil field worker who became a hero of Communist China during the 1960s and 1970s.
Wang’s Drill Team No. 1205 was credited with doing more than any other to develop the super-giant Daqing oil field amid the frozen swamps of northeast China.
“Despite the harsh and extremely cold environment, he and his (team) members transported and installed rigs by pulling and piggybacking, and supplied water in basins and buckets for spud-in. In fact, they finished the first oil well of the ‘battle’ in only five days and four hours, a record at the time,” according to CNPC.
“To suppress a blowout from the second well they were drilling, Wang, with an injured leg, mixed mud with his body in a waist-deep mud pond. His energy to work day and night and capacity to fulfill even the most challenging task gained him the reputation of Iron Man.”
Wang, originally a poor peasant from Gansu province, ended up being elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1969.
It is hard to separate the myth-making from the reality, but there is no doubting the immense achievement that the Daqing oil fields represented. They were the first fields developed entirely with Chinese expertise, rather than with help from the Soviet Union.
The battle for Daqing, which is how it was described at the time, liberated China from its “longstanding slavish dependence” on foreign oil, according to Premier Zhou Enlai (“Oil in China: from self-reliance to internationalization” 2010).
Daqing is central to the history of modern China. No place played a more important role in the second half of the 20th century, except Shenzhen, the special economic zone next to Hong Kong, associated with Reform and Opening and the economic policies of Deng Xiaoping.
The first successful Daqing well was drilled in 1959, when China had barely any domestic oil production and relied almost entirely on imports. By 1973, production from Daqing had grown so much that China became a net oil exporter, a status it would retain for the next 20 years.
Daqing became a symbol of energy independence. “Because of the discovery andconstruction of the Daqing oil field, our country’s economic construction, the oil needs of defense and civilian applications, which had depended on foreign imports in the past, are now basically self-reliant,” Premier Zhou proudly told the National People’s Congress in 1963.
Daqing also became a metaphor for modernization. Zhou, Deng, and even Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, all visited Daqing and employed it as a model for the development of the economy.
In 1963, Mao himself pronounced that the rest of China’s industry should “learn from Daqing” and thereby launched an industrial and political philosophy that became known as “Daqing-ism,” a blend of technocracy, heroism and ideology.
But Daqing was more than just a symbol. The field was the single most important contributor to the state budget from the 1960s through the early 1980s and a vital source of foreign exchange earnings as China began the long, slow modernization of its economy.
Daqing’s petroleum engineers and managers became known as the “petroleum faction” — an elite and one of the most influential and respected groups in the party and the state.
Everything about Daqing is on a superlative scale. It is one of the largest oil fields in the world. In 1976, production hit 1 million barrels per day, and it was sustained at that level for another 27 years before being slowed by 20 percent in 2004.
By 1985, China was the world’s sixth-largest petroleum producer after the Soviet Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Daqing alone accounted for about half of its total output.
In 2009, China National Petroleum Corporation announced cumulative production had reached 2 billion tonnes (around 14.6 billion barrels). That ranks Daqing in a tiny elite group of “super-giant” fields along with Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, Mexico’s Cantarell, Russia’s Samotlor and the East Texas Field in the United States.
But Daqing is getting old. Field pressure, the reservoir’s natural energy, has dropped, making the oil harder to produce. So CNPC has resorted to a variety of methods to maintain production rates and try to scrape more oil from the reservoir.
“Nearly every sort of enhanced recovery method has been tried at Daqing,” according to Stephen Rassenfoss at the Journal of Petroleum Technology. The reservoir has been injected with water, carbon dioxide, surfactants and polymers to drive more of the remaining oil towards the wells (“Daqing: an old field at the center of new EOR testing” June 2014).
The discovery of oil at Daqing brought China self-sufficiency for more than a quarter of a century and made it a net exporter from 1973 to 1993. But China’s production has leveled off at best, while its oil demand has boomed.
China has overtaken the United States and Japan to become the biggest oil importer in the world. Once more the country is threatened by its dependence on foreign oil.