Rising incomes, rapid urbanization and concerns over the toxic smog that enshrouds many of its cities are driving China away from coal and oil and towards natural gas.
Gas usage has risen almost sevenfold in 13 years to 168bn cubic metres, and China has become the largest consumer after the US and Russia.
Further increases are expected. The power, industrial and transport sectors are forecast to drive demand to 315bcm by 2019, according to the International Energy Agency, the wealthy nations' energy watchdog, and Beijing has set its sights even higher.
But uncertainty remains about the pace of growth into the next decade.
"Natural gas demand in China has potential to grow much more rapidly than it is now," says Anne-Sophie Corbeau, senior IEA gas analyst. "However, there is still a lot standing in its way. In some ways we are less optimistic about the Chinese."
The expansion of the country's gas sector is a massive logistical and capital investment challenge. Supply availability, delivery infrastructure, pricing levels and policy, and funding to promote gas over other fuels are all factors that dictate the speed at which the switch occurs.
The government wants to boost gas's share of total energy consumption from 4 per cent to about 8 per cent by the end of 2015 and 10 per cent by 2020, to reduce the plumes of black clouds resulting from heavy coal use.
But China's ability to construct the vast infrastructure network needed to produce, import and transport enough gas to meet demand is under scrutiny.
"There is a lot of pent-up demand, particularly over the last decade, but infrastructure and the availability of supply have been a constraint," says Michael Stoppard, gas strategist at IHS. "They really haven't been able to develop the gas quickly enough."
Pipelines have been at the top of the agenda. After a decade of negotiations, China struck a $400bn supply deal with Russia in May as part of a long-term strategy to raise gas imports via pipeline and liquefied natural gas. China is also connected to pipeline corridors in central Asia and Myanmar. But these will take years to ramp up to full potential, says Ella Chou at the Brookings Institution's China Center.
管道建设是当务之急。在经过10年的谈判后，中国在5月份与俄罗斯签订了一项价值4000亿美元的天然气供应合同，这是中国通过输气管道和液化气方式提高天然气进口量的长期战略的一部分。另外，中国还连入了中亚和缅甸的管道走廊。但布鲁金斯学会中国中心(Brookings Institution's China Center)的Ella Chou表示，这些举措需要数年时间才能发挥最大潜能。
The country, which is believed to hold the world's largest reserves of shale gas, hopes to replicate the US production boom in the form of tight gas, coal-bed methane and coal-to-gas conversion. But unlike the US shale industry, China does not have thousands of independent oil and gas entrepreneurs competing to expand production.
Everything depends on state-owned companies that lack development experience. Exploration rights, geological surveys and the adaptation of drilling and exploration technologies to suit the country have proved problematic, as has pulling together the relevant statistics.
Beijing has halved its target for shale gas production by 2020 to 30bcm, according to Reuters, after efforts to unlock the unconventional fuel ran into difficulties.
China became a net gas importer in 2007 and import dependency reached 32 per cent last year. Aside from questions over how quickly indigenous production can increase and whether China can contract enough imports by pipeline, there is a shortage of LNG storage facilities.
"On top of its long-term contracted gas [deals with] Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Russia, and LNG deals with the Qataris, Australians and Canadians, the ability of the Chinese to continue to grow domestic production – conventional and unconventional – quickly will dictate the needs of extra uncontracted gas that could be at a lower cost," says Thierry Bros, senior analyst at Société Générale in Paris.
"除了与土库曼斯坦、缅甸、俄罗斯达成的长期合约天然气（交易）以及与卡塔尔、澳大利亚和加拿大达成的液化天然气交易以外，中国继续快速提高国内常规和非常规天然气产量的能力，将决定对额外的非合约天然气的需求，这些天然气的价格可能更低，"法国兴业银行(Société Générale)驻巴黎的高级分析师蒂埃里·布罗斯(Thierry Bros)说。
Ultimately demand will be determined by price, analysts say, because of the many alternatives to imported gas that are cost-competitive. The single biggest competitor is power from coal transported via transmission lines to the coastal regions.
Until 2006 growth in consumption was met entirely by relatively low-cost domestic gas supply. However, higher-priced imports have been added to the mix, and their cost has risen considerably with the oil price.
"Policy makers often have to strike a balance between providing affordable gas supplies to encourage gas penetration, and setting a price that will serve as an incentive for more domestic production and higher imports," writes Michael Chen of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in a report.
"是提供较为廉价的天然气供应来推广天然气的使用，还是将定价作为激励措施来促使国内提高天然气产量并增大进口量，政策制定者不得不经常在二者中求得平衡，"牛津能源研究所(Oxford Institute for Energy Studies)的Michael Chen在一份报告中写道。
Manufacturers, which are already paying relatively high prices, want to stay competitive in the global market, while Chinese households want to keep their costs low.
But without even higher prices, the national oil companies will continue to face significant financial losses, diminishing any incentive around exploration, production and developing unconventional reserves.