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Rows of pump jacks stand out against the snowy landscape southeast of Waskada, a small town in southwestern Manitoba. (Tim Smith for The Globe and Mail/Tim Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Rows of pump jacks stand out against the snowy landscape southeast of Waskada, a small town in southwestern Manitoba. (Tim Smith for The Globe and Mail/Tim Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Drilling technology sparks new oil boom Add to ...

Companies also need to marshal an army of drilling crews and equipment to develop the fields, and will require massive investment in new pipelines to get the crude to market.

But the boom is already in full swing.

The Waskada field is tiny compared with the Bakken. Still, drilling crews have invaded the thinly populated border area, and Manitoba Energy Minister Dave Chomiak says the province could soon be producing about 50,000 barrels a day of crude, though he admits his more cautious officials forecast 40,000.

Among the handful of companies active around Waskada is Calgary-based Penn West Exploration Ltd. It plans to spend up to $175-million to drill 100 wells in the area, part of a $1-billion capital plan that is focused on tight-oil plays across Western Canada.

Penn West chief executive officer Bill Andrew said it is still too early to know how much production can be squeezed out of the rocks using the horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing techniques that have transformed the gas industry.

"It's not being appreciated in Canada because we have a view that it is all about the oil sands or all about shale gas," he said. "But the quiet revolution is in tight oil."

He compares the potential growth pattern to the early days of development in the Western Canadian sedimentary basin. Saskatchewan's Shaunavon field was discovered in the 1950s but took decades to develop. In the past few years, though, there have been over 200 wells drilled and more than 10 million barrels of oil produced.

"And the big story is, it is not even close to being drilled to its potential," he said. "On all these fields, we're still doing the front-end, early-stage delineation. … It seems like the [drilling]application is adaptable - it's adaptable to multi zones, multi areas, multi jurisdictions."

In Canada, analysts are still trying to come to grips with the potential for the new drilling technology to boost production from previously conventional plays.

But in the United States, there are some early forecasts. Cambridge Energy Research Associates issued a forecast late last month suggesting tight-oil production could reach two million barrels a day by 2016.

Analysts from Wood Mackenzie Ltd. are somewhat more cautious - forecasting U.S. tight-oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day by 2015, and growing from there.

In addition to the Bakken, companies are targeting Texas's Eagle Ford play, which produces both gas and oil, the Colorado-centred Niobrara, and several others in California, Texas and Oklahoma.

Oil drilling has soared. The number of crews in United States drilling for oil hit 818 last week, a 23-year high and an 83-per-cent increase from early February, 2010.

Wood Mackenzie analyst Matthew Jurecky said the big tight-oil projects are attracting significant investment capital, including acquisitions by foreign multinationals.

Unlike shale gas, which can be uneconomic at low prices, the tight-oil plays are relatively inexpensive to develop, compared with the oil sands or the ultra-deep water wells. Mr. Jurecky said the leading projects are economical at oil prices below $50 (U.S.) a barrel. At $90, companies expect very attractive rates of return.

"In plays like the Niobrara, expectations are high and money has been put in place for large-scale development there," Mr. Jurecky said in an interview. "As well, there's been lots of M&A [mergers and acquisitions]capital, suggesting a high degree of confidence."

With low gas prices, many natural gas producers - including Canadian companies like Encana Corp. and Talisman Energy Inc. - are shifting their targets to the "wet gas" zones of the Marcellus, Eagle Ford and other shale gas fields. Natural gas liquids - which are counted in U.S. oil production figures - contain many of the components of crude oil but have only 60 to 70 per cent of the heat value.

One of the leaders in the tight-oil boom is Chesapeake Energy Corp., the Oklahoma City-based company that was a prime mover in the development of shale gas.

Chesapeake is shifting its focus away from gas to projects that produce oil or natural gas liquids (NGL). The company expects to increase its liquids production from 49,000 barrels a day currently to 250,000 barrels a day by 2015, which would make it one of the top five producers in the United States.

And foreign oil companies have taken note. Chinese state-owned oil company, Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) has bought a one-third interest in Chesapeake's acreage in Eagle Ford and Niobrara for $3.5-billion (U.S.).

Mr. Jurecky said the current investment will be the tip of the iceberg if the tight-oil plays prove as prolific and lucrative as many believe they will be.

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