Amid forecasts that see no end to low gas prices across North America, overseas exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are being rated as a must for development of the Canadian version of shale supplies in northern British Columbia (BC).

Imperial Oil disclosed that three dozen exploration wells on 1,380 square kilometers (530 square miles) of mineral leases held in partnership with its 70% owner, ExxonMobil, in BC’s Horn River Basin found only “dry” gas with none of the oily byproducts that have kept drilling going in other shale regions, especially in the United States.

The absence of high-value liquids makes construction of LNG terminals on BC’s Pacific Coast for exports to Asia the “critical” ingredient for developing production from the northern shale deposits, Imperial Chairman Bruce March told a news conference after the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

LNG export projects will be considered by Imperial and ExxonMobil, he said. But “they’re not simple,” added March, a veteran of the parent company’s international interests including a gas-to-liquids scheme in Qatar.

An eight-well pilot plant will test Horn River production potential and establish an economic standard for comparison with rival contenders for gas exports to China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The sales opportunities “appear to be huge and long,” but the competitive standard could be high, March said.

He pointed out that other global LNG suppliers, such as Australia, use big, untapped conventional reserves that flow naturally and require only a handful of wells to put out high production volumes. BC shale gas development requires a sustained commitment to multiple wells in a forbidding subarctic environment every year, using costly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Although Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) has granted 20-year export licenses to two export terminal projects on BC’s north Pacific Coast at Kitimat, it’s still very early days for the planned Asian trade in tanker loads of Canadian LNG, March said.

The NEB granted the licenses as aids for negotiating with gas users in Asia, after the projects’ sponsors told the board that prospective overseas buyers demand assured supplies, officially confirmed regulatory co-operation and strict confidentiality as prerequisites for considering sales contracts.

March confirmed that the Imperial-led Mackenzie Gas Project, which also has NEB approval, will stay dormant until further notice at some unknowable future date because the sponsor group agrees with the Canadian industry and financial market consensus that gas prices show no sign of recovering enough to justify arctic supply development. All northern activity, including talks with federal authorities on potentially supportive government policies, has been suspended except for peacekeeping local land access and benefits payments required by agreements with arctic communities.

The Canadian consensus shows in a spring market assessment report by the NEB, titled Short-term Canadian Natural Gas Deliverability 2012-2014. “It is possible that the oversupply of natural gas in North America could extend through 2014,” the report said.

“Producers will continue to target natural gas deposits that are richer in liquid hydrocarbons — propane, butanes and pentanes-plus [also known as condensate or natural gasoline] — since those liquids provide an additional source of revenue,” the NEB said. “Levels of natural gas drilling in Canada over the 2012-2014 period will likely not be adequate to offset ongoing declines in output from existing producing wells. Even though new wells are producing natural gas at higher initial rates, overall deliverability is likely to decrease.”

The board is not betting that the green light given to global marketers by its LNG export licenses will ignite an immediate boom in terminal construction and tanker loadings.

The wary NEB said only, “LNG exports from Canada have the potential to begin in the next few years.”