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Oil/NatGas Leasing Down Sharply in Western Canada

Industry spending on natural gas and oil leases has dived to the lowest level since 1992 in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB).

Purchases of drilling and production rights to publicly owned Crown resources across British Columbia (BC), Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba collapsed to about C$376 million (US$282 million) in the last calendar year.

The 2015 total was down by 65% from C$1.08 billion (US$810 million) in 2014 -- and a severe 82% cut from the 2010-2014 five-year average of C$2.2 billion (US$1.7 billion), according to records kept by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

The data covers almost all gas and oil lease acquisition in Canada, where all but a small minority of mineral rights are Crown property, held as public trusts by the provincial and federal governments. The ownership structure dates back to the 19th century, when withholding minerals from transfers of surface rights to settlers became a national policy of generating sales and royalty revenues to pay for public services.

BC and Alberta, as homes to the largest resource endowments, reap about 80% of revenues from auctions of WCSB drilling and production rights. Companies nominate areas for drilling and production development. The governments post the prospects as leases for sale to the highest bidders.

The auctions show no signs of recovery.

In Alberta, where Crown gas and oil income is up to 40% of provincial revenues during energy market highs, rights sales are hovering in a depressed range of C$200-300 million (US$150-225 million) and rated as liable to worsen as austerity prevails across the industry. Separate oil sands lease sales are also down. Premier Rachel Notley staged a televised fireside chat this week to start explaining the forthcoming provincial hard-times budget that includes a return to deficits and borrowing for the first time since the early 2000s.

In BC monthly gas and oil rights sales fell in February to a bleak record of zero. It was the first time in provincial history that not a single package sold. March was little better, with small bits and pieces fetching only C$1.9 million (US$1.4 million).

But the lease auctions are only barometers of current company moods and budgets, rather than predictors of future behavior, observe veteran industry participants and analysts. Standard practice in Canada is to accumulate large asset portfolios of resource prospects, and bank them (as "land" in industry jargon) until markets, prices and technology advances are seen as ripe to pay swift drilling and development profits.

The record year for WCSB gas and oil lease auctions -- C$5 billion (US$3.8 billion) in 2008 -- was followed by a severe 18-month drilling slump. Field activity dried up due to the global financial recession, soft oil prices, arrival of the North American shale gas supply glut, and slow progress on Canadian liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil pipeline export projects.

As oil rebounded, while LNG and pipeline hopes grew too, the Canadian industry bought an Oklahoma-sized total of 17.8 million hectares (68,819 square miles) of WCSB leases in the five-year period of 2010-14 before the current price slump. The resource rush included heavy buying into Canadian shale and tight drilling targets opened up by northern adaptations of American horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, especially in the large BC and Alberta Montney, Horn River and Duvernay geological formations.

While banking the leases until markets and prices recover, Canadian operations emerged as world champion drilling and job cutters in response to the current low on the energy economics cycle.

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