Alberta energy drillers pivot to natural gas as oil plunges

2/26/2015

ROBERT TUTTLE

CALGARY (Bloomberg) -- Alberta’s energy producers are pivoting toward developing gas reserves rather than oil after crude lost half its value last year.

The number of gas development rigs in Canada’s biggest energy producing province almost doubled in December to 157, the most for that month since at least 2010, the Alberta Energy Regulator said in data posted on its website late Wednesday. The number of crude development rigs fell by 4.3% percent to 134.

Alberta’s gas prices dropped 35% last year while oil fell 46%. U.S. crude prices have plunged below $50 from last year’s high above $107 after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries resisted calls to cut output amid a surge of U.S. crude production.

While most conventional petroleum rigs in Alberta produce both gas and oil, the collapse of crude prices is prompting drillers to focus on wells with higher gas volumes, Mark Oberstoetter, lead Canada upstream analyst at Wood Mackenzie Ltd., said in a phone interview from Calgary.

“Some of those wells that have higher gas rates, they might have become more economic than their liquid-heavy counterparts,” he said. “You can now alter where you are going to pop your wells.”

Alberta’s gas prices collapsed in 2008 and have mostly traded between $2 and $4/MMBtu since then as surging U.S. production cut exports south and large- scale projects to liquefy and export gas from British Columbia were delayed. Still, exports to the U.S. West Coast are higher than a year ago and companies led by AltaGas Ltd. are moving forward with smaller LNG projects, with the first scheduled to start in 2018.

Alberta Hub

Gas at Alberta’s AECO hub rose 1 cent to $2.36/MMBtu at 11:56 a.m. mountain time on Feb. 26, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The price has fallen 4.1% this year. U.S. crude futures fell $2.82 to $48.17/bbl.

Most Albertan oil is extracted as bitumen from the province’s northern oil sands, either through mining or by injecting steam into the ground and then pumping it out of the earth.

While conventional oil rigs declined, bitumen development rigs rose an annual 29 percent in December to 142, the energy regulator said. This compares with a 14% decline a year earlier.

Oil sands producers invest billions of dollars in operations that will produce oil for decades. While starting an oil sands project now wouldn’t be economical, companies will push ahead with those under construction and projects already operating will continue, Jackie Forrest, vice president of Calgary-based ARC Financial Corp., said in a Jan. 29 e-mail.

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