Meet North America's best shale oil patch

oil rigs budgets

You really know business is tough when success is measured by who's suffering less.

The precipitous downturn in oil prices has hurt every oil town from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northwest Territories. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs, house prices have fallen, consumer spending in these communities has plummeted and many companies on the front line - and those which support them - have shut down or gone broke.

To describe the situation as ugly would be flattering.

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But flying below the radar of the world oil industry during this slump is Grande Prairie in Canada's northwest Alberta community. The area appeared on the oilpatch radar in a big way in the late 1970s with natural gas and the so-called Deep Basin.

When the shale gas and oil revolution hit Canada, Grande Prairie was sitting dead center and right on top of a massive geological structure called the Montney.

It is a spectacular reservoir and appears to be one of the handful of places in North America where exploration and production companies can make money at current oil prices.

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This formation has appeared on well logs for decades but it was tight and required new technology to economically unlock the hydrocarbons.

The National Energy Board's analysis on the Montney reveals some really big numbers. It calls the Montney "one of the largest hydrocarbon reservoirs ever discovered in Canada and North America."

It reports the Montney holds 449 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, which is enough to supply all of Canada's needs at current rate of consumption for 145 years.

Along with the gas, the Montney will yield 14.5 billion barrels of marketable natural gas liquids and 1.1 billion barrels of marketable oil. It's easy to understand why the region has attracted so much attention.

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It is not unreasonable to call the Montney a company maker. Rapidly growing oil companies that are still drilling aggressively despite current low oil and gas prices include Progress Energy (PREX), Tourmaline Oil (TRMLF), Peyto Exploration and Development, Seven Generations Energy (SVRGF) and Painted Pony Petroleum (PDPYF). And many others.

Natural gas is supposed to be dead. But Peyto and Tourmaline, for example, claim that both are able to make profits on their production.

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Other operators running rigs in this area include global players such as Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), ConocoPhillips (COP), and Repsol (REPYF).

This is not to say Grande Prairie is a paradise. It's no fun to be in this business anywhere in the world right now.

The oil companies have been saying that their profit margins have been squeezed and they are cutting back spending budgets.

But if any oil company or employee must be anywhere in North America during the bloodbath called 2015, it might as well be Grande Prairie.

The combination of geology and world-class infrastructure has combined to create what developers claim is a profitable business at current commodity prices.

David Yager is a journalist for Oilprice.com

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