After four years of field trials, Alberta’s fledgling coalbed methane industry is launching its first foray into commercial production of the biggest untapped natural gas deposit in the province. A C$400 million (US$320 million) pioneer drilling campaign is under way into the vast Mannville coal formation by Trident Exploration Corp., Nexen Inc. and Red Willow Production Co.

The 18-month program aims to prove up about 400 Bcf of reserves in a 400-square-kilometre (155-square-mile) area near Fort Assiniboine, 120 kilometres northwest of the Alberta capital of Edmonton. The project barely scratches the surface of a formation that provincial government geologists estimate contains 300 Tcf or nearly eight times more gas than Alberta’s remaining conventional reserves. As the condensed and compressed remains of prehistoric swamps that once covered much of the region, the Mannville layer carpets wide swaths of Alberta at depths averaging 800-2,500 metres (2,600-8,200 feet). Gas pervades the Mannville in networks of tiny pores or fractures more than any other coal formation in the province.

Alberta industry will do well to harvest 10% of the Mannville gas, said Trident president Jon Baker, a transplanted American and wary veteran of coalbed methane development in the United States. “This is just the start.”

But making producible reserves out of even one-tenth of the gas “in place” still creates a 30 Tcf supply source on the scale of Alaskan gas, he added. Trident, a privately-owned Calgary specialist in coal gas, leads and operates the new project for minority partners Nexen and Red Willow, a native economic development enterprise of the Colorado-based Southern Ute Indian Tribe which has extensive coalbed methane operations in the San Juan Basin.

The Alberta development may generate more than 600 wells because coal-gas production in the province’s conditions requires drilling up to four per section (square mile or 2.6 square kilometers). The new project is also the fledgling Alberta coalbed methane industry’s first venture into wet seams outside the shallow, dry, smaller and less gas-rich Horseshoe Canyon formation beneath the southern plains around Calgary, Drumheller and Brooks.

But environmental conflict aroused by wet coalbed methane development in the U.S. will be avoided by the inaugural Mannville development, Baker predicted. The new Alberta project aims to eliminate the worst sore spots in the American industry by using horizontal drilling and improved waste-water disposal. Disturbance of the land – and landowners – will be kept at a minimum because up to four horizontal wells will be drilled across coal seams from single, widely-spaced locations or “pads,” Baker said.

The horizontal well bores radiate outwards from the central spots in a variety of directions for distances of up to 1.6 kilometres. Each pad will also have a disposal well where waste water will be injected back into the ground beneath the coal. Water in the Mannville seams is brine about twice as salty as the oceans. Waste flows will be kept under control in pipelines, at no time coming into contact with fresh water. The pipelines will be short, reducing risks of leaks. Noise, another environmental headache in older U.S. coalbed methane developments, will also be controlled in the new Alberta development by using silencing equipment on machinery such as gas pipeline compressors.

The new methods raise costs but prevent environmental and community conflicts from stalling projects, Baker said. Trident has already obtained landowner consent to coalbed methane drilling on more than 100 sections of the Fort Assiniboine project area, he reported.

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