​ Alberta's Unconventional Resources

Unconventional oil and natural gas do not flow naturally through rock, making them more difficult to produce.

In Alberta, there are three main types of unconventional resources:
  • Tight gas and oil: natural gas and oil found in sandstone, siltstones and carbonates
  • Shale gas and oil: natural gas and oil locked in fine-grained, organic rich rock
  • Coalbed methane (CBM): natural gas contained in coal.

Unconventional resource development solutions include:

  • Horizontal Drilling, a steerable drill-bit to drill around rock, has been around for decades but recently has it been paired with multi-stage hydraulic fracturing. More than half of western Canada's oil and natural gas wells are being drilled horizontally, and since 2013, an estimated 80 per cent of all oil wells placed on production use the same technique. Horizontal drilling reduced surface impacts, a single well can do the work of several vertical wells.  techniques have the advantage of being able to increase resource recovery while reducing surface impacts. Multiple wells from a pad further help reduce surface impacts with less roads and pipelines required. Early landowner engagement is required when multiple industrial activities are planned.
  • Multiple wells from a pad,drilling multiple wellbores, or drill holes, from a single surface location, further help reduce surface impacts with less roads and pipelines required. Early landowner engagement is required when multiple industrial activities are planned. 
  • Hydraulic Fracturing, sometimes referred to by the non-technical term "fracking", involves pumping fluids, typically water, into a formation at a high enough pressure to crack, or fracture, the rock layer. The fluid also contains proppant, such as sand, that helps keep the fractures open so that oil and gas can flow to the surface. Instead of water, some fracture operations use liquefied propane, nitrogen, liquefied carbon dioxide, diesel or other fluids. Hydraulic fracturing has been safely used in Alberta on more than 180,000 wells since the technology was introduced in the 1950s. Since 2008, more than 10,000 wells have been drilled in Alberta using the combination of multistage hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling for oil and gas development.

The Government of Alberta provides policy direction to the Alberta Energy Regulator(AER), which regulates all oil, natural gas, oil sands, unconventional and coal development activity in the province. Some policy and regulatory enhancements include:

    • Water management, Water for Life: Alberta's Strategy for Sustainability sets the overall direction for managing Alberta's water resource. 
    • Groundwater Protection, managed through manages the Groundwater Observation Well Networkthat consists of over 250 active monitoring wells installed to monitor groundwater quality and water levels throughout the province. Over 40 of these wells are equipped with satellite devices that transmit near real-time water level data. Regional technologists maintain the wells, collect the data, sample the wells and archive the data into departmental databases. Directive 59: Well Drilling and Completion Data Filing Requirements, the AER requires disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluid composition, water source and volume data on a well-to-well basis this is reported on the FracFocuswebsite, the
      AER also offers more Hydraulic Fracturinginformation and a video on Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing. Directive 35: Baseline Water Well Testing Requirement for Coalbed Methane Wells Completed Above the Base of Groundwater Protection, captures Baseline water well reports, prior to the drilling of nearby Coalbed methane wells, this program maybe expanded to include hydraulic fracturing operations. The AER restricts fracturing within a 200-metre lateral distance of water wells. 
    • Wellbore Integrity, the AER has strict requirements for cemented casing (wellbore construction includes the use of steel casing that is cemented into the wellbore) in wells to provide a barrier between the wellbore and any nearby water sources.
    • Air Quality, the Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines set out acceptable minimal levels to ensure safety and environmental protection related to air quality. Air quality is monitored at over 110 continuous permanent monitoring stations and over 25 additional continuous temporary monitoring stations. These monitoring stations are operated by industry, airshed zones, Environment Canada and the Government of Alberta. As regional plans are developed throughout the province, air quality management frameworks will be created for common air pollutants. These air quality management frameworks will describe the amount of pollutants that can be released from industrial developments in various regions of the province from multiple emission sources while ensuring that air quality objectives continue to be met. The AER uses Directive 60: Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring, Incinerating and Ventingto ensure air quality.
    • Noise and Light, during the drilling of wells and hydraulic fracturing activity, some operations may be undertaken for extended periods of time which may impact the local community. To mitigate this, the AER's Directive 56: Energy Development Applications and Schedulessets notification and consultation requirements and determines proximity requirements for oil and gas wells from residential structures. Directive 38: Noise Controloutlines an approach to deal with noise problems. AER also works closely with municipalities and communities by providing information about potential developments to support their preparation for increased traffic and/or other concerns.
    • Induced Seismicity (IS), refers to earthquakes (seismicevents) resulting from human activity. IS events are usually low in magnitude. IS events have been associated with some aspects of energy development, particularly oil and gas extraction activities and deep well disposal of waste-water. As the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased, it has been linked as a potential cause of IS. The AER notes that there has been no evidence that harm from IS has occurred to the public, workers, property, structures, surface and/or groundwater in Alberta. Seismic activity is monitored by the Regional Alberta Observatory for Earthquakes Studies Network (RAVEN) and networks operated by Natural Resources Canada, the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology and the University of Western Ontario. The Alberta Geological Survey(AGS) under the AER collects data from these stations to document natural and induced earthquakes which are compiled into a comprehensive earthquake catalogue.

Revenue from non-renewable resources account for almost a third of the Government of Alberta's budget and is the largest contributor to the province's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), exports, and capital investments. An estimated one in 12 people in Alberta are employed in the upstream energy industry.

Decades of oil and gas production has resulted in a decline in Alberta's conventional oil and gas reserves. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) estimates a reserve outlookexternal link icon each June. Advances in technology have allowed industry to develop unconventional oil and gas resources. The Government of Alberta works with industry to promote innovation and technology that helps our energy sector, the Innovative Energy Technology Program is an example of this investmen to support of responsible development of Alberta's energy resources.

Unconventional resources can be found in geological formations throughout Alberta, in 2012, the AGS prepared a study for unconventional hydrocarbon resource potentialin Alberta. The following is a list of the formations followed by the estimated resource potential.

  • Montney formation - 136.3 billion barrels of oil, 28.9 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 2,309 trillion cubic feet of natural gas
  • Duvernay formation - 61.7 billion barrels of oil, 11.3 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 443 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in-place
  • Muskwa formation 115. 1 billion barrels of oil, 14.8 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 419 trillion cubic feet of natural gas
  • Nordegg member 37.8 billion barrels of oil, 1.4 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 148 trillion cubic feet of natural gas
  • Wilrich member 47.9 billion barrels of oil, 2.1 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 246 trillion cubic feet of natural gas
  • Banff and Exshaw formations 24.8 billion barrels of oil, 92 million barrels of natural gas liquids, and 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the 1950's the Cardium formation was discovered, this areas has produced over 1.5 billion barrels of oil. The National Energy Board(NEB) estimates that the formation still contains an estimated 10.6 billion barrels of oil.