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Could Canada be the next big thing in shale oil?

Don Horne   


U.S. shale oil battered Canada’s energy industry in the past few years – but the very thing that hurt Alberta’s economic engine may now be its saviour.

For two decades, Canada’s oil industry enjoyed a rapid expansion and job creation in the nation’s vast oil sands – that is, until U.S. shale oil exploded on the scene amid plummeting worldwide oil prices.

Now Canada is looking to its own shale fields to repair the economic damage, according to a recent Reuters report.

Canadian producers and global oil majors are increasingly exploring the Duvernay and Montney formations, which they say could rival the most prolific U.S. shale fields.


Canada is the first country outside the United States to see large-scale development of shale resources, which already account for 8 per cent of total Canadian oil output. China, Russia and Argentina also have ample shale reserves but have yet to overcome the obstacles to full commercial development.

Canada, by contrast, offers many of the same advantages that allowed oil firms to launch the shale revolution in the United States: numerous private energy firms with appetite for risk; deep capital markets; infrastructure to transport oil; low population in regions that contain shale reserves; and plentiful water to pump into shale wells.

Together, the Duvernay and Montney formations in Canada hold marketable resources estimated at 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 20 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and 4.5 billion barrels of oil, according to the National Energy Board, a Canadian regulator.

“The Montney is thought to have about half the recoverable resources of the whole oil sands region, so it’s formidable,” Marty Proctor, chief executive of Calgary-based Seven Generations Energy, told Reuters.

Canada’s shale output stands at about 335,000 bpd, according to energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, which forecasts output should grow to 420,000 bpd in a decade. The pace of output growth could quicken and the estimated size of the resources could rise as activity picks up and knowledge of the fields improves, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Seven Generations and Encana Corp, also based in Calgary, are among leading producers developing the two regions. Global majors including Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips – who pulled back from the oil sands last year – are also developing Canadian shale assets.

Chevron Corp. announced its first-ever Canadian shale development in the Duvernay in November. Spokesman Leif Sollid called it one of the most promising shale opportunities in North America. ConocoPhillips sees potential for the Montney to deliver significant production and cash flow to the company, executive vice president of production drilling and projects Al Hirshberg said in November.

Shell will invest more money this year in the Duvernay than any other shale field except the Permian Basin in West Texas, the most productive U.S. shale play, spokesman Cameron Yost said.

“We may learn something in the Permian that becomes applicable in the Montney, and vice versa,” Yost told Reuters.

The oil sands boom dates back two decades, when improved technology, rising crude prices and fears of global oil shortages sparked a rush to develop the world’s third-largest reserves. But in the last five years, much of that investment has migrated south as U.S. shale firms pioneered new drilling techniques and flooded global oil markets with cheaper-to-produce crude.

The oil sands currently account for two-thirds of Canada’s 4.2 million barrels per day of crude. They will continue to contribute heavily to Canada’s energy output because oil sands projects, once built, produce for decades.

But the era of oil sands mega-projects will likely end with Suncor Energy’s 190,000 barrel-per-day Fort Hills mining project, which started producing this month.

Canadian energy officials are now counting on shale, also known as “tight” oil, to lure new investment.

“Increasingly we are going to see light tight oil and liquids-rich natural gas forming a key part of Alberta’s energy future,” said Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, energy minister for the province where the oil sands and much of the nation’s shale reserves are located.

Oil sands development drove Alberta’s economic growth at a rate of 5.5 per cent annually between 2010 and 2014, about twice the national rate. But the oil price crash in 2014 sent the region into a recession and has since prompted producers to scrap at least $32 billion in planned projects.

Oil sands capital spending fell for a third straight year in 2017 while other oil and gas investment rose 40 per cent from 2016 to about $31 billion, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Spending outside the oil sands is expected to grow again this year to $33 billion, nearly three times the amount predicted for oil sands investment.



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