Billions of barrels of oil under Sahtu

LLI GOLINE/NORMAN WELLS-NWT & Nunavut News/North

There's an estimated 191 billion barrels of shale oil in two fields in the Sahtu region, according to an evaluation by the territorial government and National Energy Board released May 22.

"It is going to draw more attention to the Northwest Territories (from oil companies)" Ramsay told News/North.It's an amount described as "staggering" by David Ramsay, minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment.

It was the first evaluation of the Bluefish Shale and Canol Shale plays located around Norman Wells and Tulita for shale oil potential. Shale oil can be extracted through a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

That's when a horizontal or vertical well is drilled and water, chemicals and sand are injected at a high pressure to fracture a rock formation.

There's been very little exploration of the oil resources in the region so there's some uncertainty in the data.

The study estimated low, mid-range and high volumes of potential oil reserves using methods developed to calculate how much oil the shale formations in B.C. and Saskatchewan contain.

Bluefish could contain as little as 27 billion barrels or as much as 70 billion barrels while Canol could have 82 to 220 billion barrels. The analysis used a mid-point estimate.

Further exploration and extraction is expected to narrow down the range.

A lack of data also means the analysis assumed both shales are saturated with oil throughout the study area.

While there may be billions of barrels of oil in the ground, not of all it can be recovered.

But if only one per cent of the oil from Canol is recovered, it would represent a marketable resource of 1.45 billion barrels, the study states.

According to the analysis, operators of a field in Texas with similar geology expect to recover about three per cent of the discovered resources.

Three per cent recovery of the Canol Shale would represent 4.35 billion barrels.

The Bakken Formation, which has been at the centre of the American oil boom in recent years, contains an estimated 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to a 2013 study by the United States Geological Survey.

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya called the figures phenomenal.

"If that ever went into production and development, the Sahtu could be a pretty well self-sustaining region," he said.

"It could mean the NWT could be a huge contributor to energy in Canada."

Nathan Watson, deputy mayor of Norman Wells, said it's good news.

"It offers some level of certainty I suppose to the companies that would be interested in that," he told News/North May 22.

"I'm not sure if it's going to mean much immediately. But it certainly bolsters the case for what everyone in the Sahtu, or a majority of us, agree on - the need for an all-season road."

The GNWT will continue to make investments - such as extending an all-season highway - that will spur industry development in the region, Ramsay said.

Interest in the region from industry has fallen off along with the price of oil over the past year.

A news release about the study touted industry interest, pointing out that 14 exploration licences have been granted since 2010-2011 and seven new exploration wells drilled since 2012.

Both Husky Energy and ConocoPhillips Canada previously stated they do not plan on any exploration activities this year.

The minister said he expects the study results will bring further attention from companies.

"Hopefully we'll get some people knocking on our door real soon," Ramsay said.