A vast 449 Tcf of natural gas, 14.9 billion bbl of natural gas liquids (NGL) and 1.1 billion bbl of oil await production in just the best known, most accessible western Canadian shale deposit, according to a federal and provincial report on the Montney geological formation.
The spectacular numbers emerged Wednesday from the first formal assessment of the commercially recoverable, or marketable, deposits in one of the shale resource endowments in Alberta and British Columbia.
Even the astronomical figures are only initial appraisals that err on the conservative side of supply estimating and are liable to grow, said the agencies that collaborated on the projections: the National Energy Board, Alberta Energy Regulator, BC Oil and Gas Commission and BC Ministry of Natural Gas Development.
A high-case forecast pegs the marketable Montney supplies at potentially 645 Tcf of gas, 21 billion bbl of NGLs and 2.4 billion bbl of oil. The projections use limited data from fledgling Canadian shale production, employing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing methods that only began with field trials seven years ago.
The pioneer wells have already achieved daily Montney flows of 1.7 Bcf of gas and 25,845 bbl of liquids, and the volumes are bound to grow, said the federal and provincial agencies.
The Montney underlies 130,000 square kilometers (52,000 square miles) of northwestern Alberta and northeastern BC, mostly within a one-day drive on paved roads from the Alberta capital of Edmonton. Lying at varying depths, the thickness of the shale carpet is 100-300 meters (328-984 feet).
The formation spans a region where conventional vertical drilling, pipelines and processing plants have been well established since the 1950s. The territory includes Canada's latest homestead farming frontier as well as three thriving northern service and industrial centers: Grande Prairie in Alberta and Dawson Creek and Fort St. John in BC. The Alaska Highway starts at Dawson Creek.
Distribution of the resource wealth is uneven. Most of the Montney NGLs and virtually all the oil tapped to date are in Alberta. But potential for new discoveries of liquids sweet spots in the comparatively unknown BC share of the formation is attracting growing industry interest.
Fresh exploration with the new drilling and fracturing technology shows in a recent forecast by the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC). The group's projections are accepted as highly reliable because its 260 field supply and service contracting firms are proven barometers of industry activity.
While the most wells are still drilled in Alberta, BC is the fastest growing region, the PSAC figures show. In 2013, BC is recording an 11% increase in wells to 506. Next year, the BC total is expected to climb again to 550, while activity in Alberta holds steady or drops slightly within a range of 6,500 to 7,200 wells.
Traditional well counts are rapidly losing their former stature as reliable indicators of investment and productivity, PSAC President Mark Salkeld said while releasing the latest activity forecast.
As in the U.S., horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing are changing the Canadian industry's character. "Large-scale use of these technologies is creating a trend to fewer wells overall," Salkeld said. "One well today can be the equivalent of two, three or more wells drilled 10 years ago. That's a game-changer for our industry."
The federal and provincial agencies' new estimates of BC and Alberta shale supplies make no attempt to guess at productivity gains that might be made with additional technology advances. The official projections of marketable or recoverable shale gas, NGLs and oil are derived using only "foreseeable economic and technological conditions," the Montney appraisal report said.
The document raised the current estimate for the "ultimate potential" production of all types of gas in in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, primarily from Alberta and BC, to 821 Tcf.
"The ultimate potential for natural gas should be considered an estimate that will evolve, likely growing over time as additional unconventional potential can be found in unassessed shales such as those in the Liard Basin of [northern-most] BC and the Duvernay Formation of Alberta," said the federal and provincial authorities.
Canadian Natural Resources is the largest leaseholder in the Montney with 1,043,800 net acres. Other major players in the Montney include Petronas (899,956 acres), Encana (575,000 acres), ExxonMobil (545,000 acres) and ARC Resources Ltd. (492,600 acres).