2016 Review: Western Canada’s ultimate potential for natural gas jumps

Release date: 2017-01-12

Since horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing started being applied to Canadian tight and shale gasFootnote 1 resources just over a decade ago, estimates of the ultimate gas potential of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) have more than tripled to over 1 000 trillion cubic feet(Tcf).

Published estimates of ultimately recoverableFootnote 2 natural gas are snapshots in time of the geological understanding of a basin, and the technology available to develop its resources. In subsequent years, unexpected resources can be discovered in what were thought to be formations with little potential. Technology can improve, turning what was once thought to be a gas-bearing but unproductive resource into one with significant production potential.

Prior to 2005, estimates of the ultimate conventional gas potential of the WCSB grew steadily over time, largely keeping pace with cumulative production from all prior years plus remaining reserves. In the mid-2000s the ultimate potential for natural gas production in the WCSB was estimated at about 300 Tcf, almost half of which was already produced.

Published Estimates for Ultimately Recoverable Natural Gas in the WCSB
(each dot represents a published estimate)

Source and Description

Source: NEB, and published estimates of ultimately recoverable natural gas in the WCSB from provincial governments and other government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Description: This graph illustrates cumulative production, remaining reserves, and the ultimate potential of natural gas production in the WCSB from 1980 to 2014. Cumulative production plus remaining reserves steadily grew from 38 Tcf in 1970 to 275 Tcf in 2014. Natural gas reserves have remained relatively steady between 55 and 75 Tcf. While estimates of the total gas potential of the basin steadily grew from between 146 and 185 Tcf in the early 1980s to around 300 Tcf in 2004, a significant change occurred in 2010, when unconventional resources such as shale gas and Montney tight gas were first included. The most recent estimate of western Canadian ultimate potential is over 1 000 Tcf, more than triple the estimates from prior to 2005.

Note: Because the most recent year-end reserves data for some provinces is for 2014, figures for more recent years have been excluded.

The first Canadian application of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing was in 2004 in the Montney Formation near Dawson Creek, British Columbia. By 2010, this new technology was widely applied elsewhere and it became evident that the WCSB’s gas potential was significantly larger than previously estimated. When Liard Basin shale gas was assessed in 2016 the estimate for the ultimately recoverable gas in the WCSB (conventional plus unconventional) exceeded 1 000 Tcf.

By year-end 2016, only about 210 Tcf of the WCSB’s total potential had been produced. As WCSB shale-gas resources continue to be assessed, estimates of the WCSB’s ultimate potential are expected to continue growing.

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