Canada finds few buyers for its gas

For sale: an awful lot of natural gas, delivered upon request practically anywhere, price negotiable. Please hurry. That's the kind of billboard Canadian gas producers might erect at the world's crossroads if they thought such dramatic advertising would work.

Many of Canada's gas producers and wholesalers believed last Jan. 27 that doubling of the exportable fuel surplus to 23.5 trillion cubic feet (TCF) would signal the long-awaited upturn in the sagging fortunes of their industry. Then the nation's regulatory watchdog, the National Energy Board (NEB), added another 11.5 TCF to the volume of gas being set aside for exports. This gas was deemed in excess of domestic needs almost up to the turn of the century.

The board even awarded gas supplies for a liquefaction project on the west coast - with Japan as the intended destination - to financially troubled Dome Petroleum Ltd. In the absence of its own funds, Dome is banking on an influx of Japanese yen to complete the scheme.

And in a style reminiscent of 19th-century emperors drawing and redrawing the maps of continents, the NEB has carved up the United States into regional markets. For example, New England markets are reserved for fuel yet to be produced off Nova Scotia.

The sad fact is that while the board may award exports, it cannot find buyers for the gas any more easily than the producers or their wholesalers could, whether at the present $4.94 (US) per thousand cubic feet border price or less.

Some here have suggested that given the present state of the American gas market, Canadian gas supplies couldn't even be given away. That may well be an exaggeration born out of the desperation that has gripped the industry here for the past two years.

First, they had to convince the NEB that the frantic exploratory drive of the late '70s found a lot of gas, mainly in northwestern Alberta. (The 15 TCF or so of gas supplies so far rounded up in the arctic islands do not figure in the NEB's current official tabulations.)

Virtually all of the expensive, deep exploratory drilling and the subsequent development of ''tight'' gas-bearing sands occurred in the hope of immediately linking up with markets at home and abroad on borrowed money. In the end, the NEB acknowledged the evidence was overwhelming that 11.5 out of the 27 TCF proposed by the industry was beyond domestic requirements and therefore available for export.

Unfortunately, by 1981, producers not only realized they couldn't expect any new customers but that their current share of the markets was beginning to erode at an alarming rate.

US utilities cut back on their purchases of authorized Canadian gas supplies by more than half. Even today, there is little hope that the previous 1.6 TCF of annual exports allowed prior to last month would be bought up in full this year or next.

Few industry experts here now view the much-delayed, increasingly expensive, and often-discussed Alaska Highway gas pipeline as feasible or urgent.

As far as the western Canadian producers are concerned, they face the double threat of being dealt out of future market opportunities that might arise and of seeing the volume of idled fuel grow.

They are likely to be squeezed hard by gas production coming from the east coast in about three to five years and by still more fuel from the far north later, which, like the offshore supplies, is likely to be given preference by the federal government.

Ottawa has to do something tangible to enhance the frontier gas potential by giving it assured markets and export licenses, because of the vast amounts of federal fiscal incentives tied up in its exploration and development.

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