More investors are now inquiring about Coalbed Methane exploration companies. Just as uranium miners were flying well below the radar screen in early 2004, coalbed methane exploration may very well be the next very hot sector later this year and next. Historically, coalbed methane gas endangered coal miners, resulting in alarming fatalities early in the previous century. This is the fate suffered today by many Chinese coal miners in the smaller, private coal mines. Typically, the methane gas trapped in coal seams was flared out, before underground mining began, in order to prevent those explosions. Rising natural gas prices have long since ended that practice.
Today, coalbed methane companies are turning a centuries-long nuisance and byproduct into a valuable resource. About 9 percent of total US natural gas production comes from the natural gas found in coal seams. Because natural gas prices have soared, along with the bull markets found in uranium, oil, and precious and base metals, coalbed methane has come into play. It is after all a natural gas. But because it is outside the realm of the petroleum industry, coalbed methane, or CBM as many industry insiders call it, is called the unconventional gas. It may be unconventional today, but as the industry continue to grow by leaps and bounds, on a global scale, CBM may soon achieve some respect. Please remember that a few years ago, there was very little cheerleading about nuclear energy. Today, positive news items are running far better than ten to one in favor of that power source.
CBM is the natural gas contained in coal. It consists primarily of methane, the gas we use for home heating, gas-fired electrical generation, and industrial fuel. The energy source within natural gas is methane (chemically, it is CH4), whether it comes from the oil industry or from coal beds.
CBM has several strong points in its favor. The gases produced from CBM fields are often nearly 90 percent methane. Which type of gas has more impurities? No, it isn’t the natural, or conventional, gas you thought it might be. Frequently, CBM gas has fewer impurities than the “natural gas” produced from conventional wells. CBM exploration is done at a more shallow level, between 250 and 1000 meters, than conventional gas wells, which sometimes are drilled below 5,000 meters. CBM wells can last a long time – some could produce for 40 years or longer.
Natural gas is created by the compression of underground organic matter combined with the earth’s high temperatures thousands of meters below surface. Conventional gas fills the spaces between the porous reservoir rocks. The coalification process is similar but the result is different: both the coalbed and the methane gas are trapped in the coal seams. Instead of filling the tiny spaces between the rocks, the coal gas is within the coal seams.
One of the past problems associated with CBM exploration was the reliance upon expensive horizontal drilling techniques to extract the methane gas from the coal seams. Advanced fracturing techniques and breakthrough horizontal drilling techniques have increased CBM success ratios. As a result, a growing number of exploration companies are pursuing the early bull market in CBM. Market capitalizations for many of these companies mirror similar “early plays” we mentioned during our mid 2004 uranium coverage (June through October, 2004). Industry experts told us there would be a uranium bull market. Now, we are hearing the same forecasts about CBM.
SEVEN TIPS BY DR. DAVID MARCHIONI
We asked Dr. David Marchioni to provide our subscribers with his 7 Tips to help investors better understand what to look for, before investing in a CBM play. Dr. Marchioni helped co-author the CBM textbook, An Assessment of Coalbed Methane Exploration Projects in Canada, published by the Geological Survey of Canada. He is also president of Petro-Logic Services in Calgary, whose clients have included the Canadian divisions of Apache, BP, BHP, Burlington, Devon, El Paso Energy, and Phillips Petroleum, among others. He is also a director of Pacific Asia China Energy and is overseeing the company’s CBM exploration program in China.
Our series of telephone and email interviews began while Dr. Marchioni sat on a drill rig in Alberta’s foothills, the Manville region, until he finished outlining his top 7 tips, or advices, on how to think like a CBM professional.
1) COAL SEAM THICKNESS
Is there a reasonable thickness of coal? You should find out how thick the coal seams are. With thickness, you get the regional extent of the resource. For example, there must be a minimum thickness into which one can drill a horizontal well.
2) GAS CONTENT
Typically, gas content is expressed as cubic feet of gas per ton of coal. Find how thick it is and how far it is spread. Then, you have a measure of unit gas content. Between coal seam thickness and gas content, you can determine the size of the resource. You have to look at both thickness and gas content. It’s of no use to have high gas content if you don’t have very much coal. The industry looks at resource per unit area. In other words, how much gas is in place per acre, hectare, or square mile? In the early stage of the CBM exploration, this really all you have to work with in evaluating its potential.
3) MATURITY LEVEL OF THE COAL
This is the measure of the stage the coal has reached between the mineral’s inception as peat. Peat matures to become lignite. Later, it develops into bituminous coal, then semi-anthracite and finally anthracite.
There is a progressive maturation of coal as a geological time continuum and the earth’s temperature, depending upon depth. By measuring certain parameters, you can determine where it is in the chemical process. For instance, the chemistry of lignite is different from that of anthracite. This phrasing is called “coal rank” in coal industry terminology.
When you are beginning to think about CBM production, this and the next item must be evaluated. How permeable is the CBM property? You want permeability, otherwise the gas can’t flow. If the coal isn’t permeable at all, you can never generate gas. The gas has to be able to flow. If it is extremely permeable, then you can perhaps never pump enough water. The water just keeps getting replaced from the large area surrounding the well bore. The water will just keep coming, and you will never lower the pressure so the gas can be released.
In a very high proportion of CBM plays, the coal contains quite a lot of water. You have to pump the water off in order to reduce the pressure in the coal bed. Gas is held in coal by pressure. The deeper you go, typically the more gas you get, because the pressure is higher. The way to induce the gas to start flowing is to pump the water out of the coal and lower the “water head” of pressure. How much water are we going to produce? Are we going to have to dispose of it? If it’s fresh, then there may be problems with regulatory agencies. In Alberta, the government has restrictions on extracting fresh water because others might want to use it. One could be tapping into a zone that people use as water wells for farms and rural communities. Both water quality and water volume matter. For example, Manville water is very salient so nobody wants to put it into a river; this water is pushed back down into existing oil and gas wells in permeable zones (but which are also not connected to the coal).
To be able to access land and do some initial drilling, i.e. the first round of financing, it would cost a minimum of C$4 million. This would include some geological work and drilling at least five or six wells. In Horseshoe, that would cost around C$4 million (say 1st round of finance); in Manville, about C$9 million. This is under the assumption that the company doesn’t buy the land. The land in western Canada is very expensive and tightly held. Much of the work is done as a “farm in” drilling on land held by another for a percentage of the play. (Editor’s note: During a previous interview, Dr. Marchioni commented about his preference for Pacific Asia China Energy’s land position in China because comparable land in western Canada would have cost “$100 million or more.”
The geology only tells you what’s there, and what the chances of success are. You then have to pursue it. Can we sell it? Gas prices are “local,” meaning they vary from country to country, depending whether it is locally produced and in what abundance (or lack thereof). How much can we extract? How much is it going to cost us to get it out of the ground? Are there readily available services for this property? Will you have to helicopter a rig onto the property at some incredible price just to drill it? Will you have to build a pipeline to transport the gas? Or, in China as an example, are there established convoys for trucking LNG across hundreds of kilometers?
One addition, which we have mentioned in previous articles, and especially in the Market Outlook Journal, “Quality of Management Attracts PR,” it is important that the CBM company have experienced management. This would mean a management team that includes those who have gotten results, not only a veteran exploration geologist but a team that can sell the story and bring in the mandatory financing to move the project into production.
There are two primary reasons why many of these coalbed methane plays are being taken seriously. First, the macroeconomic reason is that rising energy costs have driven companies in the energy fields to pursue any economic projects to help fill the energy gap. Coalbed methane has a more than two decades of proof in the United States. The excitement has spread to Canada, China and India, where CBM exploration is beginning to take off. Second, the fundamental reason is that exploration work has already been done in delineating coal deposits. There are, perhaps, 800 coal basins globally, with less than 50 CBM producing basins. In other words, there is the potential for growth in this sector.
We discussed with the Ux Consulting president from which countries future uranium supplies may come, and who is going after those supplies more aggressively. He warns about the risks and rewards of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, looks to Africa for supplies, and talks about Russia’s expansion.
StockInterview: How do domestic uranium prospects rate in the eyes of U.S. and foreign utilities?
Jeff Combs: I don’t think that utilities expect the U.S. to be a major supplier of uranium. What you’re seeing with China and other countries, where nuclear power is growing, is that they’re definitely looking to secure supplies. The Chinese are going to Kazakhstan and also Australia, where there are a lot of uranium reserves, a lot of potential for growth. I think there’s some potential for growth in the U.S. But if you had a fast growing nuclear power program, I don’t think the U.S. is the first place I’d look. I believe that you can look for some opportunities in the U.S. But in general, the U.S. utilities are basically in competition with some of these newer entrants into the market for available supplies. Those are primarily outside of the U.S., as U.S. utilities also depend on imports for most of their supplies.
StockInterview: It appears many countries are racing to secure uranium supplies outside their borders.
Jeff Combs: Even Russia, which was a major exporter of uranium in the 1990s, is looking to secure additional supply sources, first to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, former republics of the of Soviet Union, but also to Africa. Russia has an extremely ambitious reactor expansion program, as well as a desire to greatly increase its exports of reactors to countries like China and India. As it stands now, most of the growth in nuclear power is expected to take place in China, India, Russia, as well as Korea and Japan to a certain extent. All these countries are really looking outside their borders for uranium supplies that are going to sustain them for quite a long period in the future. None of them are blessed with very rich and extensive uranium deposits.
StockInterview: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to create something on the order of a Wal-Mart Super Center for the nuclear fuel cycle?
Jeff Combs: Well, you see them doing a joint venture in Kazakhstan. They’re trying to do something with Kyrgyzstan. They’re definitely looking at how they can shore up their supply through imports, in addition to investing a billion dollars in their own internal production. In this respect, they are trying to draw from their old supply chain arrangements. This is to meet their internal needs, as well as the needs of countries to which they have traditionally supplied reactors and the fuel to run these reactors. As Russia looks to expand its reactor sales to countries that don’t have established fuel cycles, they want to be able to supply them with fuel – possibly even lease them the fuel. This means that they have to be prepared to take back the spent fuel. This is due at least in some measure to nonproliferation concerns, in that you don’t want these new entrants building enrichment or reprocessing plants. While Russia has enrichment capacity and the ability to expand this capacity, they also need uranium to be able to supply these countries with enriched uranium. This is why they’re currently focusing on the uranium side of the equation.
StockInterview: Let’s talk about some of the target countries, where those with the more ambitious nuclear energy programs will want to secure uranium.
Jeff Combs: We have recently done a series of reports, looking at countries where major production is taking place, or could take place. Of course we’ve done them on Canada, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. I think the next country might be Mongolia because of the exploration and development activity that is taking place there. Mongolia’s mining laws are very favorable to foreign companies. Mongolia is also located in that part of the world where the bulk of nuclear power expansion is taking place. The problem in Mongolia now is the lack of infrastructure – the location of the exploration sites relative to roads and rail lines, and the ability to connect to the electricity grid and water lines.
StockInterview: There has been so much press and chatter about Kazakhstan. Is there substance in these commentaries, or is it mainly hype?
Jeff Combs: They’ve got a lot of uranium resources and reserves. They’ve also got a commitment to expanding production there and a pretty big customer in China. The hype might be related more as to whether they can do it as quickly as they say, as opposed to whether they can eventually get to the levels they’re talking about. One of the things that will slow them down is the infrastructure, including the skilled work force, needed to expand at that rate. They have increased production. They definitely will continue to increase production, but perhaps not at the rates they are advertising. They’ve produced a lot in the past, in the old Soviet Union days. I think they can get back up to those production levels, but it’s going to take some time.
StockInterview: What will be required to get things going in Kazakhstan?
Jeff Combs: It appears they’ve been able to attract capital. A large part of it is just the time is takes to build the infrastructure, including training workers. You can have all of the investment in the world, but it still takes time to get things done, especially if the infrastructure isn’t well developed in the first place. If you look at Kazakhstan on the map, it is very close or adjacent to Russia, China, and India, where the major part of nuclear growth is occurring. I don’t think there will be any shortage of demand for their output.
StockInterview: Where does Japan fit into the current uranium bull market?
Jeff Combs: Japan is definitely a factor in the market. Their growth might not be as rapid as it once was, or once was expected to be. With Japan you have a country that does not really have any indigenous uranium resources to speak of. They really need to import uranium. To facilitate this and to secure future supplies, Japan has historically developed different supply relationships around the world, both by taking positions in uranium mines and by nurturing long-term relationships with producers. I think that it’s likely the case that this recent price rise caught them somewhat off guard, but recently Japanese utilities have put more effort into shoring up their supply options.
StockInterview: There are countries, which get little media coverage, such as Namibia. How does this country rate?
Jeff Combs: I think Namibia will definitely have an important role in supplying uranium. I don’t think it’s going to have the expansion potential of Canada, Australia, or Kazakhstan, but I think South Africa, Niger and Namibia are going to be an important component for uranium supply in the future.
StockInterview: You mentioned Niger, which was the world’s third largest uranium producer, and has now fallen to number four, behind Kazakhstan.
Jeff Combs: The funny thing about Niger is that in a way it’s sort of fallen off the radar screen. It produces, but it just doesn’t get the press as other places. If the price increases, it really changes how people look at all these different projects going forward and a lot of things, which might not have been looked at 20 years ago or so, are being reinvestigated. Obviously, there is uranium in Niger. It’s quite important to the economy there. As I said, they haven’t really been on the radar screen as much as a lot of other regions in the world. Perhaps this is because production there has been controlled by the French for a long time. There are some Canadian companies exploring in Niger now. Since this activity is fairly recent, it won’t likely bear any fruit for five to ten years down the road.
StockInterview: Do you foresee realistic nuclear energy expansion in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East?
Jeff Combs: Frankly, I haven’t focused on that very much. I know that Turkey is looking to do something. At some point, I think you would see more nuclear power in the Middle East just because the oil supplies aren’t going to last indefinitely. We do a headline news service, and it’s packed full of stories on different countries that are looking at nuclear power. It seems like there is a new country added to the list every day. I know, for instance, that Vietnam is looking pretty seriously at nuclear power. It would not be surprising there would be interest in the Middle East. There is a lot of focus on the problems associated with Iran. Overall, I’m a believer that if you have more nuclear power, then you’re going to have fewer problems with energy and more economic development, higher standards of living, and that’s going to be a big positive that will outweigh the negatives in situations like Iran.
StockInterview: Speaking of Iran, what is Washington’s sentiment toward nuclear energy, aside from the Bush Administration’s endorsement?
Jeff Combs: I think there is a growing recognition, even among Democrats, that you need nuclear power as part of the energy mix. You’re not going to get there just by renewable energy sources. With the environmental and overall energy challenges we’re facing now, with higher and higher natural gas and oil prices. From the U.S. standpoint the vulnerability with respect to secure energy supplies, I think there is a growing recognition that nuclear power is part of the solution, and this thinking extends outside of the Bush administration. I’ve talked to people, and they believe that even if a Democratic administration came in that you really wouldn’t necessarily put a damper on nuclear power.
StockInterview: What about the Hillary Clinton Factor, if she becomes the next U.S. President?
Jeff Combs: I haven’t really asked her for her views on nuclear power recently. I think the story for nuclear power is not so much what happens in the United States, which certainly could add more reactors. The rest of the world probably looks to what the U.S. does to a certain extent. I think the real growth in nuclear power, and what’s likely to drive the market in the future, is on the part of the developing countries in the eastern part of the world. These would be China, India, Korea and Russia, where economies are growing a lot more quickly, not the really mature economies like in the U.S. and Europe. Although I would expect to see some growth there as well. In this respect, having a Democratic president would not derail what’s happening in nuclear power or the uranium market. As mentioned earlier, I think that you see a more general acceptance of nuclear power across party lines, in Europe as well as the U.S., although there are still some factions that are virulently anti-nuclear.