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Quebec shale gas find could redraw Canada's energy map

Seventy-five kilometres southwest of Quebec City, in the farm country that lines the St. Lawrence River, natural gas is surging from the ground.

In a province so distant from the petroleum industry that it does not yet have its own system for distributing oil and gas leases, the sight of a producing natural gas well is as unusual as it is important. Thousands of kilometres from the traditional heart of Canada's energy industry, this well could represent a significant redrawing of Canada's energy map.

When it was first brought on stream in late January, it produced 12 million cubic feet of gas a day, a gusher by gas well standards, and a huge boost to Calgary-based Questerre Energy Corp., which has partnered in Quebec with the much bigger Talisman Energy Inc.

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After Questerre released news of the well on Tuesday, its shares climbed 36 per cent, and a series of other companies with stakes in a new play known as the Utica shale followed its rise.

Investor excitement erupted for a simple reason: If the Utica can match some of its early promise, Quebec could begin to seize some of the West's importance as Canada's energy piggy bank.

The oil patch has come to New Brunswick, too, to probe rocks that may parallel some of North America's biggest natural gas plays. The most daring companies have even begun to look at Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as new energy sources.

Fifty kilometres south of Montreal, a drilling rig is burrowing deep beneath the pastoral farm country that lines the St. Lawrence River.

The promise of big eastern finds is particularly compelling since they are so close to the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, where gas sells at a premium.

"It's kind of like real estate: location, location, location. The best place to have these assets is closest to the market," said Jim Fraser, senior vice-president of shale operations at Talisman, which has a 75-per-cent interest in 400,000 hectares of Questerre's land.

Though the output at Talisman's first Quebec well has fallen to less than half its original strength in the three weeks it has flowed, a rapid decline is typical in shale gas production, and Talisman is moving ahead with three more wells like it this year.

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The play is incredibly young, and is seductive in part because so little is known about it - a fact that has even its backers preaching caution.

"You always like best what you know least about. And we don't know a lot about Quebec yet because we're still in the early phases," said Talisman chief financial officer Scott Thomson.

Industry generally measures shale gas wells by the average of their first 30 days of production. The first major shale play in North America, the Barnett, produces 1.5 to three million cubic feet a day. British Columbia's Horn River averages 15 million, while the Marcellus, which is geographically near the Utica, averages about five million.

How the Utica will ultimately stack up against those plays remains very much an open question, since the well has not flowed long enough to prove how much gas will actually come to the surface.

But Questerre believes Quebec's Utica shale could contain more than 20 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas - far higher than gas estimates in Canada's Mackenzie Delta. "We think it's a top 10 shale deposit in North America. The only issue has been to prove that it's commercial," said Questerre chief executive officer Michael Binnion.

It will take many years, and many more wells to see whether those estimates are correct, Mr. Binnion admits. The Talisman well is "only one well and it's certainly not proof that you can take down to the bank and get a loan with," he said. "But it's a very positive indicator."

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And what's clear is that the shale gas revolution, which has already shredded beliefs that North America is running short of natural gas, is now set to transform the way Canada thinks about energy.

"I've never seen anything like it in terms of what it could mean for gas flows," said Stephen Paget, an analyst with FirstEnergy Capital. "The idea that Quebec could be a gas-producing region is quite something."

For Quebec, the possibility of a large natural gas deposits inside its borders is pushing the government to look at creating an infrastructure for the industry. All the province has to offer are mining licences.

It is a similar situation in New Brunswick, where natural gas has been largely overlooked since the early 1900s, when a small discovery spurred the construction of a pipeline that fed Moncton for 80 years.

But the province was never considered especially prospective, in part because earlier exploration attempts did not take into account shale rocks, which hold onto gas molecules so tightly that they barely flow to the surface when tapped by a well.

Now, new rock-fracturing technology has allowed companies to free enough gas that Calgary-based Apache Canada Ltd. plans to drill two horizontal wells, each with multiple underground fractures, this year in New Brunswick, to test its potential. Apache came in to the Frederick Brooke through an agreement with junior company Corridor Resources Inc.

It is early days, and the companies know they're not plumbing traditional territory. But for a company such as Apache, an early move into a relatively unknown area is a risk worth taking. The first one in can pick up more land at a cheaper price.

"The winners in this game will be the ones that identify and actually control the best fields," said Robert Spitzer, Apache Canada's vice-president of exploration. "And that's what we're doing."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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