A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS

A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS

‘No excitement at all’ as oilpatch interest wanes for drilling rights auctions

Sales of Crown drilling rights have fallen off dramatically in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan this year

A key indicator of future oil and gas drilling activity in Western Canada is sliding lower as the industry deals with a lack of pipeline capacity, Alberta oil production curtailments and difficulty accessing capital markets.

Sales of Crown drilling rights — needed to allow energy exploration on land where mineral rights are held by the province — have fallen off dramatically in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan this year.

“When drilling rights are going well, it tends to mean somebody has found either a good reservoir or a good way to produce a known reservoir and so you get a lot of excitement,” said Richard Masson, an executive fellow with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

“This says to me, there’s no excitement at all right now. People are doing little bits of infill land buying but there’s nothing that looks like a very prospective play that would excite the industry and excite new capital to come in.”

In Alberta, which produces about 80 per cent of Canada’s oil and about 70 per cent of its natural gas, twice monthly auctions are on track for a record low with two sales left to go in 2019. Through 11 months, the province has raised $100 million by selling rights on 616,000 hectares.

The current low mark was set in 2016, when $137 million was paid for the rights to drill on 937,000 hectares, the lowest since the auction system was adopted in 1977.

The high was in 2011, when a bidding frenzy for lands for the Duvernay underground oil-bearing formation resulted in $3.5 billion spent to buy rights on 4.1 million hectares.

In British Columbia, land auctions have delivered $64 million so far this year, down from $173 million last year but ahead of $18 million and $15 million in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The record high year was 2008, when $2.66 billion was spent.

In Saskatchewan, sales of drilling rights have raised about $22 million in five auctions, down from $51 million in six auctions last year. The province’s record year was also 2008, when it raised $1.1 billion.

Industry insiders say the declines are mainly due to the lack of new pipeline capacity to allow more oil and gas production, and the resulting loss of confidence by investors that has starved the sector of debt and equity funding. Production limits in Alberta imposed by the government to better align supply with pipeline capacity are another overhang on activity.

“The mood is very cautious. People are feeling very beat up,” said Grant Fagerheim, CEO of Whitecap Resources Inc., in an interview.

At Whitecap, as with many other mid-sized Calgary producers, using scarce dollars to buy land for future drilling and then spending more on the exploration required to retain the lease is way down on the priority list, he said, below maintaining a dividend, reducing debt and buying back shares.

“Companies just don’t have budget to acquire new lands. Nobody is exploring for new plays or new ideas, or very few people are,” said Brad Hayes, a geologist and president of Petrel Robertson Consulting in Calgary.

Drilling rights auction prices fell sharply after global oil prices bottomed out in 2016, which convinced some bargain hunters to nominate land and make bids in hopes there would be a bounce back, he said. But conditions haven’t improved.

The trend to lower interest in drilling rights auctions is welcomed by environmentalists like Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada, who said in an email it is a sign that the ”era of ever-growing demand for oil” is over.

In B.C., much of the prime land has been snapped up by producers, leaving less to be nominated for auction, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources who asked not to be identified. He said some land is not available for development because of government processes around caribou recovery and land and environment planning assessments in northeastern B.C.

The Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors recently predicted just nine more wells will be drilled in Canada in 2020 compared with this year, taking the total number to 4,905, less than half the 11,226 wells drilled in 2014.

Meanwhile, the S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index, which tracks share values of major Canadian oil and gas producers, has fallen by about 15 per cent over the past year, reflecting investor distaste for the sector.

But Whitecap’s Fagerheim says there’s hope for the industry if Canada can get pipelines built, a task he says will require concerted effort from everyone involved to educate the rest of Canada on the virtues of the oilpatch.

“I think it’s as simple as that. Make commitments, live by those commitments. Remove those delays and the regulatory processes that inhibit us from getting our products to market.

“And I think we can get the enthusiasm back.”

READ MORE: B.C. gets top marks in national energy efficiency

Dan Healing, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
36 new cases of COVID-19, one death in Interior Health

The number of active cases in the region is at 366

Minor Hockey Day in Trail - for web
Greater Trail minor hockey maintains tradition in time of no-play pandemic

GTMHA recognizing its teams in Trail Times feature (photos pre-pandemic)

Tim Schewe
DriveSmart: Police Powers

Tim Schewe is a retired constable with many years of traffic law enforcement.

Coby Reid helped rescue this bobcat from where it had frozen to the train tracks. Photo: Coby Reid
Bobcat deliverer shares details from Kootenay train track rescue

Coby Reid helped rescue a bobcat that was frozen to train tracks near Waneta bridge

Pictured here are part of the Oxide Leaching crew on Dec. 31, 1944. L-R: Reg Bilkey, Mary Rohacks, Mabel Schiavon, Bill Saitherswaite, Bobby Mason held by Carmela Demeo, Jean Stainton, Skid Marsters, Ingrid “Atty” Atkinson, Andy Adie, and Jessie Woodridge. Photo: Trail Historical Society
Trail Blazers: Pillars of strength – our women

Trail Blazers is a weekly historical feature in partnership with the Trail Museum and Archives

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky, father of the Great One, dies at 82

Canada’s hockey dad had battled Parkinson’s disease and other health issues

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Second death reported in Kelowna General Hospital COVID-19 outbreak

A total of seven cases have been identified at the hospital: six patients and one staff

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

A Cowichan Valley mom is wondering why masks haven’t been mandated for elementary schools. (Metro Creative photo)
B.C. mom frustrated by lack of mask mandate for elementary students

“Do we want to wait until we end up like Fraser Health?”

Most Read