In another sign the bloom is off the boom for the oilsands, the industry has returned almost one million hectares of northern Alberta exploration leases to the province over the past two years — abandoning an area far bigger than P.E.I
The total area covered by oilsands leases remained constant at about nine million hectares between 2011 and 2014. But it fell to 8.5 million hectares in 2015 and 8.1 million in 2016, following the crash in world oil prices from over US$100 to under $60 per barrel in 2014.
Most of the returned acreage either represents expired or surrendered leases, according to Alberta Energy, which provided the statistics at the request of The Canadian Press.
Observers were surprised by the size of the lease returns which they attributed to industry cost-cutting and disinterest in spending to develop new prospects when there’s no money to build projects already on the books.
“It costs money to maintain these lands,” said Brad Hayes, president of Petrel Robertson Consulting in Calgary.
“You can’t convince shareholders to continue to put that money out if there’s no prospect for success.”
Alberta’s oilsands have been getting little respect lately, thanks to the exit of large foreign companies, the province’s hard cap on oilsands emissions, increasing carbon taxes and the stumbling price of crude oil.
Its troubles have been welcomed by environmentalists who point out the industry’s outsized impact on air, land and water pollution.
“This is good news. It’s a sign that investment dollars are shifting out of carbon-intensive energy,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada.
Energy companies are often very secretive when buying Crown leases, usually acting anonymously through a land broker, and they are almost as secretive when giving up a lease position.
Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) reported in disclosure documents that its holdings of oilsands leases fell by 46,000 hectares between 2014 and 2016. But when asked why, spokeswoman Julie Wood said in an email, “We can’t comment on specific dispositions to the Crown or third parties.”
Financial considerations, however, were cited in 2015 when junior oilsands company SilverWillow Energy Corp. announced it had returned three leases to the government to avoid $50,000 per year in fees — leases that cost about $2 million to buy at Crown auction in 2011 and were estimated to contain more than 80 million barrels of recoverable bitumen.
A few months later, the cash-strapped company, whose stock was worth $90 million in 2012, agreed to sell itself for $1.7 million to another Calgary firm.
Alberta Energy spokesman Ryan Cromb said oilsands leases are awarded with an initial 15-year term which can be extended if the company invests, usually by drilling wells or by beginning production. The primary leaseholder is charged rent of $3.50 per hectare, but there’s a rent increase if the lease is extended.
The province’s biggest auctions of oilsands leases took place in 2006, when investors paid almost $2 billion to buy 1.5 million hectares at an average price of $1,273 per hectare.
In 2016, only 44,000 hectares were sold at just $266 per hectare.
Co-owner Darren Rath of Basin Environmental said his consulting company once found plenty of work designing reclamation plans for oilsands exploration programs, but that work has dried up. There were 1,686 oilsands evaluation wells drilled in 2014, but only 387 in 2016, according to Alberta Energy.
“Honestly, I don’t expect a ramp up any time soon unless oil prices recover,” Rath said.
Rob Bedin, a director with RS Energy Group in Calgary, said many oilsands leases were bought 10 to 15 years ago by speculators who hoped to make a profit by reselling them at a later date.
The Alberta oilsands contain an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, about 168 billion barrels of which are considered recoverable using today’s technology.
There are about two dozen operating oilsands projects in Alberta. More than 70 others have regulatory approval, but have not been green-lighted by their proponents.