Crescent Point west of Torquay in 2017. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

CALGARY – If you were to ask someone what two technologies resulted in Saskatchewan’s “Bakken Boom,” the answers would surely be horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracking. Occasionally more legs, but especially more frac stages, were key.

It now appears that Crescent Point Energy Corp., which, through dozens of acquisitions, consolidated most of the Viewfield Bakken, is experimenting with moving away from fracking in that play.

Certain rock types, like shale, have very low permeability and porosity. They may be saturated with oil and/or gas, but the hydrocarbons can barely flow through the “tight” rock. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” pumps high pressure water into the oil or gas well in a specific spot, or “stage.” The water pressure causes the rock to fracture, allowing oil and/or gas to flow into the well. Large amounts of sand or “proppant” are pumped down into the well to prop open those new fractures so they don’t close. By doing this numerous times in a horizontal well (60 frac stages or more are not unheard of), it greatly increases hydrocarbon production from formations that would otherwise yield very little production, if at all, using conventional production methods.

Fracking revolutionized oil and gas production, not just in Saskatchewan’s Bakken and Torquay plays, but also its Viking, BC/Alberta’s Montney gas play, North Dakota’s Bakken/Three Forks, and Texas’ Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Permian Basin plays.

On Oct. 26, Crescent Point announced its 3rd quarter financial results. And in the discussion, Crescent Point executives mentioned this significant change in direction with regards to fracking.

Chief operating officer Ryan Gritzfeldt said, “In our Viewfield Bakken play, we drilled our first multilateral open hole horizontal well, and are now drilling a second based on the success of the first. By adopting a new well design we have removed the need for fracture stimulation in these multilateral horizontals, expanding the economic boundaries of the play.

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“We also continue advancing our decline mitigation projects throughout our Saskatchewan operations to enhance secondary recoveries and moderate future capital requirements. In third quarter, we initiated a polymer sled as a tertiary form of recovery within a unit of our Shaunavon play and are encouraged by early results.”

Analysts taking part in the conference call asked for further details about the move away from fracking. Gritzfeldt said, “This is something that our teams had been looking at, trying to figure out how to expand the economic boundaries of the play, as you step out from the core.

“I think the drilling technology has gotten so good that, it’s a little bit cheaper now to attack some of the areas in this play with just drilling, instead of having to frac. So these multilaterals are obviously tighter spaced than our fracked wells. And if you look at total recovery and initial production from a section under these multilateral wells, versus our conventional fracked well, you get higher higher production and higher reserves, potentially for lower capital.

“So, we’re pretty excited about it. It’s early days; 125-plus BOE per day, per well. And, if our production hangs in and it hits our URS lists, we probably have over 100 more locations to go and incorporate that into our five year plan in Viewfield.

“And we are looking at other areas in our portfolio, i.e. like Shaunavon. Obviously, this area in, Viewfield has, you know, a little bit better porosity permeability, maybe then maybe say Shaunavon does. So early days still, but we will look to see if we can apply it throughout our other assets.”

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The rise and decline of fracking in southeast Saskatchewan

If this becomes widespread, it would be a dramatic change in tactics for Crescent Point, which for a short while was the largest producer in Saskatchewan. The company was the leader using fracking to develop both the Viewfield Bakken and the Torquay plays (in the U.S. the Torquay is referred to as the “Three Forks.” It is directly below the Bakken formation.)

And a few years ago, when Crescent Point started selling off a lot of its assets in southeast Saskatchewan, it specifically held onto the two fracked plays – Viewfield Bakken and Torquay, disposing of most of its otherwise conventional assets in the region to other producers like Saturn Oil & Gas.

In its early years, in quarterly statements like this one, Crescent Point would consistently refer to developments in its employment of fracking. In those early years it made frequent mention of using Packers Plus’ ball-drop technology, for instance. Packers Plus’ first field office was in Estevan, principally to serve Crescent Point. But its Estevan office closed in 2016, as Crescent Point moved onto other frac technology providers.

BJ Services in 2010. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Additionally, there were eight different companies operating frac spreads in southeast Saskatchewan. They included Element Technical Services, Trican Well Service, Baker Hughes, BJ Services, Canyon Technical Services, Millennium Stimulation, Calfrac Well Services and Halliburton. However, the dramatic consolidation of junior producers in the Bakken, Torquay, and fracked Midale, principally by Crescent Point, meant fewer and fewer clients for these frac operators to chase. Crescent Point’s continual growth soon meant if you fracked for an oil company that Crescent Point bought up, and you weren’t on Crescent Point’s vendor list, you were soon out of work. And the oil downturn that hit in late 2014 cemented that, with a dramatic drop in activity, meaning even less business for the frac operators.

Calfrac in Bienfait, 2012. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Baker Hughes had already bought BJ Services in 2010, and had started construction of a major frac base on the east side of Estevan worth around $12 million when it pulled the pin and totally abandoned the project in the spring of 2014. Only in 2022 has that site, with an empty shell of a building, been sold and is now being developed by a different, unrelated company.

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A Halliburton frac spread north of Estevan in 2010. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Halliburton, one of the last to join the frac party in southeast Saskatchewan, was one of the first to leave. First it relocated its frac crews to Regina in the summer of 2014, then shutting down Saskatchewan operations entirely.

Calfrac pulled out of Bienfait in mid-2014.

Canyon Technical Services in January, 2015. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Trican had established frac fleets in Estevan and Brandon, but pulled frac operations out of Brandon in 2016 and then Estevan in 2017. By 2017, its frac operations for southeast Saskatchewan were coming out of Medicine Hat. And that was shortly after Trican had swallowed Canyon Technical Services in 2017.

Trican frac units in 2012. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Millennium went bust in 2016, four years after firing up operations with an entirely brand-new fleet. Some of its distinctively bright yellow former iron can now be seen working with Element. Indeed, Element was the lone survivor in southeast Saskatchewan. Over the years it picked up so much iron from other companies whose equipment went up for sale that at least part of their fleet ended up multi-coloured.

Millennium Stimulation doing a frac near Cromer, Manitoba, in January, 2015. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Indeed, Element would end up being the only survivor of the eight still with an operating base in the region. But as fracking’s popularity declined in southeast Saskatchewan, the company expanded substantially into the United States, especially in Wyoming.

Element performing a plug and perf frack near Torquay in 2017. By this point, it was the last man standing in the frac business in southeast Saskatchewan. Video by Brian Zinchuk

The fallout of these reduced frac operations went beyond the frac operators and their crews. Those crews often came from Alberta, or Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, without a lot of locals. With large numbers, frac crews often filled local hotels, which fueled a building spree of hotels throughout the region. New hotels popped up in Weyburn, Estevan, Stoughton, Carlyle, Carnduff, Redvers, Melita and Virden. And camps were built in Estevan, Melita and Waskada. Even Weyburn and Griffin had camps for short while. Those camps are now gone, and many of the hotels have struggled since.

So why didn’t everyone else get in on the fracking game? For one, conventional wells were a lot cheaper to drill and complete. The formations they pursued, like the Frobisher, did not require fracking. And some producers specifically pursued those conventional formations so they wouldn’t have to pay for fracking.

Many other producers shied away from fracking after the initial Bakken boom, often citing its high cost. Some producers noted that the sharp spike in initial oil production, followed by a long, but diminished tail wasn’t as desirable as more steady, consistent production over a longer period.

But there’s a question still out there – what’s next for southeast Saskatchewan? After the Bakken boom and Torquay echo, what formation and what technology will become the next big thing? And will fracking be a part of it? Time will tell.

 

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