Canada has another crude-oil discovery of major proportions, the second such success scored in three years. Between 2 and 3 billion barrels of medium-gravity oil have been identified in a string of separate pools tentatively dubbed the "River Bed" trends of southeastern Alberta. In total volume, it is four times the best estimates given on the West Pembina field, found amid a fanfare of publicity in 1977. Serious probing of the shallow, yet hard-to-find new oil prospects began in earnest about a year ago.
In recent months the petroleum industry has accelerated both land acquisition and exploratory efforts in an area extending from east of here to the international boundary. The small and medium-size independent operators that so far have dominated there found abundant reservoirs formed aeons ago in ancient riverbeds.
Dome Petroleum Ltd. of Calgary, for example, is understood to have struck a subterranean sandbar containing about 50 million barrels of "sweet" crude. Other targets at depths below 3,000 feet are believed to be even more promising, while dozens of smaller but still commercial oil pools already have been pinpointed in as many as six parallel trends.
There could be as much as 500 million barrels of oil in each of the riverbed trends, experts say privately. On the average, pools found so far appear to contain between 10 and 60 million barrels of oil.
The River Bed block, measuring roughly 100 by 150 miles, has been probed under utmost secrecy. "We knew that we were not the only successful guys out there, but you keep quiet to avoid tipping your hand," one operator with two strikes to his credit said in an interview. The central portion of the area, approximately 70,000 square miles, which is regarded as the prime prospect zone, will soon be subjected to intense competitive bidding for acquisition as well as drilling. Some individual operators, while willing to discuss their respective prospects, asked not to be named. "It's a very difficult play and doesn't go by the [geology] books at all. You work from intensive subsurface correlations."
Subsequently, individual and corporate experience gained in the River Bed trends has become "extremely valuable." So far, these trends are understood to have about a dozen producing oil wells in the lower cretaceous formation.
There could be as much as 3 billion barrels of oil, of which about half might be produced. By comparison, Canada's remaining proved conventional oil supplies amount to less than 8 billion barrels. The remaining oil reserves, mostly within Alberta, are being depleted at the annual rate of about 400 million barrels. In other words, the River Bed trends of southeastern Alberta could yield nearly four years of additional oil supplies.
The previous oil strike at West Pembina, about 90 miles southeast of Edmonton , came after a hiatus of more than a decade.
The list of players in Albert's new River Bed oil play includes besides Dome, Pan-Canadian Petroleum Ltd., Norcen Energy Resources Ltd., Coseka Resources Ltd. , Barons Oil Ltd., Oakwood Petroleums Ltd., Anna Resources Ltd., Ocelot Industries Ltd., Westcoast Petroleum Ltd., N. Brascan Resources Ltd., Tricentrol Oils Ltd., Suncor Inc., and others. Competition for prospective acreage, especially near Taber and farther to the south, next to the international boundary, really became hot last month.
Industry experts say that oil wells that are placed on enhanced recovery -- using water to sweep the reservoirs -- can be produced at maximum rates that in some cases reach 100 barrels a day. Just as with West Pembina oil, production from the River Bed play is free from Alberta royalty payments for a five-year period.
There are virtually no other similarities between West Pembina and the River Bed trends. At West Pembina, oil is trapped in a series of deep pinnacle reefs, while the shallow River Bed sands it has been sealed with layers of alluvial deposits. The River Beds also offer natural gas at several levels. There has been medium and heavy oil production in southeastern Alberta, but from different formations.
Unlike the heavy crude, the medium oil produced at the new finds -- between 25- and 30-degree gravity -- can be readily pumped into existing pipelines and processed at refineries. Depending on gravity and other quality considerations the new oil on the average is worth slightly less than the top-quality light crude priced $14.75 at the wellheads.