News came yesterday that oil major BP is close to a deal in the Alberta oil sands.
It appears that BP is the preferred bidder for a majority stake in bankrupt oil sands developer Value Creation. The price tag is $1.2 billion.
This is a big vote of confidence for the oil sands. At a time when confidence in Alberta's massive oil deposits has been flagging.
With the oil price having pulled back over the last year, a lot of concerns were once again being trotted out about the oil sands. The costs are too high. The engineering is complex. Securing services and labor is tough. The oil is too "dirty" to sell in many markets.
BP's purchase (if it does materialize) should put some of these concerns to bed. Bottom line: major oil companies still want projects with large in-place oil resources. They're not scared of the engineering.
Give them several billion barrels, and they'll find a way to make the recovery work. They're more worried about running out of reserves than they are about having to spend some money on R&D for unconventional deposits. They will dream up a way to "manufacture oil" in technically-challenging basins.
This theme of choosing engineering risk over exploration risk is becoming more common across the resource business.
I had an excellent meeting Friday with unconventional gas guru Steve Holditch. At his office on the Texas A&M campus, he described how gas producers are also growing adept at engineering new production in challenging reservoirs.
America has led the charge. And with each new shale gas basin developed, the learning curve is getting less steep. It took 20 years to get the completions right in the Barnett shale. Today the time is only a few years.
Steve pointed to a report from April 2009 showing major U.S. shale plays. Conspicuously missing was the Eagle Ford shale of south Texas. Today the play is one of the most active in the nation. A year ago it didn't even make the map.
Steve also noted that America's gas manufacturing has grabbed the world's attention. He is constantly asked by foreign oil companies (including some of the world's largest state-owned producers) for instruction on shale gas development. America has changed the gas industry with shale. Other countries want to do the same.
The rise of big, engineering-challenged deposits isn't restricted to the petroleum business. In uranium, there is creeping interest in massive, but low-grade resources hosted in phosphates globally.
Uranium major Areva is working on phosphates in Morocco. Here again, there's a lot of optimization to do. But with a prize of hundreds of millions of pounds uranium in place, it's worth it for the company to play around with a few science projects. If and when the project works, a significant new source of supply will be unlocked.
There are other mineral deposits like this on the frontiers. Black shales host huge resources of uranium, molybdenum, vanadium, nickel and probably several other metals that have never been tested for. It's a matter of figuring out the extraction.
Low-grade copper-gold-molybdenum porphyries could become economic if underground block-caving is engineered on a wide scale. The list of big, technically-challenged projects goes on and on.
Over the centuries many observers bet the world will run out of things like copper and oil. And time and again, they were wrong.
We run out of conventionally-extractable deposits. But when that draws near, we seem to have a knack for doing the work to bring unconventional deposits into the realm of possibility.
By. Dave Forest of Notela Resources