​Alberta's Unconventional Resources

Unconventional and conventional resources are essentially the same. The difference is the types of rock that they are found in and the methods used to develop them.

Unconventional oil and natural gas do not flow naturally through rock, making them much more difficult to produce. One way to understand this is to think of the difference between a sponge and a piece of clay; it is easy to squeeze water out of a saturated sponge – that’s conventional oil and natural gas. Squeezing water out of saturated clay is harder – kind of like unconventional oil and natural gas.

​In a more technical sense, it means that unconventional rocks have very low porosity and permeability compared to conventional rock. Porosity refers to the open spaces within the rock to hold fluids while permeability refers to how easily the fluid can flow through the rock.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is responsible for managing Alberta's energy resources;

In Alberta, there are three main types of unconventional resources:

  • Tight gas and oil: natural gas and oil found in sandstone, siltstones and carbonates

  • Shale gas and oil: natural gas and oil locked in fine-grained, organic rich rock

  • Coalbed methane (CBM): natural gas contained in coal.

Unconventional resources are found in reservoirs that require special production methods or technologies.  Due to limited or no flow pathways that unconventional resources are trapped in, methods to ‘crack’ or ‘fracture’ the rock are needed to allow oil and gas to flow through a well. The pyramid depicted below provides an illustration of a resource hierarchy. As you move towards the bottom, the resource volume increases but becomes more difficult to develop.   


Why should they be developed?

Energy resource development is the backbone of the provincial economy and is a vital element to Canada’s economy. Revenue from non-renewable resources account for almost a third of the Government of Alberta's budget and is the largest contributor to the province's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), exports, and capital investments. An estimated one in 12 people in Alberta are employed in the upstream energy industry. 

Decades of oil and gas production has resulted in a decline in Alberta's conventional oil and gas reserves. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) estimates a reserve outlookexternal link iconeach June.  The AER estimates supply and  the remaining established reserves of conventional crude oil in Alberta to be 1.7 billion barrels; about one-third of Canada’s remaining reserves. For natural gas, Alberta’s remaining reserves amount to approximately 31.9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf).

Advances in technology and better economic conditions have allowed industry to develop oil and gas from areas that were not possible in the past. The Government of Alberta works with industry to promote innovation and technology that helps our energy sector. Millions of dollars are invested each year by both government and industry to advance research and technological innovations in support of responsible development of Alberta’s energy resources.

Since 1930, the Government of Alberta has been recognized as a leader in managing its own resources and has had an effective policy and regulatory framework in place for more than 75 years. Regulatory review, strategic planning and information dissemination to the public are key priorities for the government in response to emerging unconventional resource development.