Fossil Fuel Potential

The map below illustrates the province's sedimentary basins, the only regions where oil, gas and coal can be created. Only one region of the province is currently seeing any commercial extraction of oil and gas: the Peace Region in northeastern B.C. It is a small part of the much larger Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, source of Alberta's hydrocarbon wealth. Coal is mined in this region, as well as in the province's southeast and in Vancouver Island. All of the remaining basins have seen hydrocarbon exploration, but no commercial drilling as yet. With the onshore basins located in B.C.'s interior, the lack of development is because of their remoteness and challenging geological conditions. With the offshore basins, it is development has been halted by the Offshore Oil and Gas Moratorium implemented in the 1970s.

Scroll down beneath the map to read short descriptions of the geological conditions and the state of exploration and development at each of these basins.


Sedimentary Basins
 Producing Oil, Gas and Coal
 Producing Coal
 Explored with Reserve Estimates
 Unexplored

This map, put together in late 2011, will likely change soon. The B.C. Government is working to encourage oil and gas exploration, both through the B.C. Oil and Gas Stimulus Package of 2009, which subsidized the drilling of oil and gas wells, and its intention to lift the Offshore Oil and Gas Moratorium and encourage drilling off British Columbia's shores. High fossil fuel prices, driven by rising Asian demand, will also serve to spur development. Chinese investors, for instance, are in the final stages of the review process to open three new coal mines in the Mount Klappan region of the Bowser Basin, in order to export increasing quantities of high-quality coal back across the Pacific.

Onshore Basins

Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.

The Western Canada sedimentary basin is a massive geological feature stretching all the way from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Canadian Shield in the east. It began forming 550 million years ago and continued until the relatively recent geologic past. The basin is one of the richest hydrocarbon reserves in the world and a small slice of it lies in British Columbia's territory.

This sedimentary basin's first B.C. oil well was drilled in 1952. In the 60 years since over 18,000 wells have followed, and it remains the only basin in British Columbia that commercially produces oil or gas. This production pales in comparison to Alberta's oil and gas production next door.

Today network of pipelines connecting oil and gas wells crisscross the region which is heavily interconnected with the Alberta economy. The total share of the economy accounted for by mining, oil and gas extraction is around 3% of provincial GDP, most of which occurs in this region, though a comparatively small 2,200 are employed in oil and gas extraction. Nevertheless fossil fuel extraction still accounts for around 19% of the province's greenhouse gas emissions according to the B.C. Government. For instance Encana's proposed Cabin gas plant for processing natural gas, which received an environmental permit in 2010, will be the province's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. When operating at capacity, the plant will emit enough greenhouse gases to be the equivalent of adding 450,000 cars to B.C.'s roads.

The Fernie Basin and the Rocky Mountain Trench.

The Fernie Basin and the Rocky Mountain Trench's close proximity to Alberta's oil and gas infrastructure made them a tempting target for oil companies throughout the 20th Century, and over 50 exploratory wells were drilled here. They only succeeded in detecting trace amounts of oil and gas however, leading to low reserve estimates for the region.

Coal has been the real story in this region, and coal mining has occurred at the Fernie Basin's three coal fields since 1898. The five coal mines currently operating in the region are the province's largest producers, digging up a combined 24.9 million tons of coal in 2001 (all of it was exported). Click on the mine markers on the Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Map to find out more about the individual coal mines.

Significant coalbed methane resources (a form of unconventional natural gas) also exist in the region, and a reserve estimate of 538 billion cubic metres makes the region an attractive location for future CBM development.

The Nechako Basin

The Nechako Basin consists of thick layers of sediment laid down during the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras that have since been covered by volcanic rock and glacial deposits. This factor, with the region's remoteness, has impeded any comprehensive search for fossil fuel reserves. 12 exploratory wells have been drilled since the 1930s, primarily in the basin's southeast near Highway 97. Several of the drill-bits came up from the wells stained with oil, while seam tests detected large quantities of natural gas. In 1994 a provincially commissioned study put a median estimate of a quarter billion cubic metres of gas in the region and another five billion barrels of oil. The estimates could swing dramatically either way following further exploration of the basin's north and west.

The Bowser Basin

Jurassic and Cretaceous sediments extend downwards to a depth of five kilometres in parts of this region. The Bowser Basin has a large coal field in the north that has come under intense scrutiny recently: In July 2011 Korean steelmaking giant POSCO invested $181 million to develop an anthracite coal mine at Mount Klappan in cooperation with Fortune Minerals. The mine, which is currently in the pre-application process, would need a new railway to be constructed that would connect the mine to Prince Rupert where the metallurgical coal could then be exported to Asia.

Two exploratory wells drilled in south Bowser in 1969 and 1972 came up dry, indicating that any oil and gas had been cooked away by millions of years of heat and pressure. In 2002 however an exploratory well drilled by the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines found oil stains, and led that ministry to estimate the north Bowser may contained 184 BCM of gas and 2.5 BBL of oil. Coalbed methane has also been detected in the Groundhog Coal Field, reserves which may become more economically attractive as technology advances.

The Whitehorse Trough

Limited studies such as a 2003 Ministry of Energy and Mines report have led scientists to believe this geological formation is host to small amounts of hydrocarbons. The region remains sparsely explored however.

Offshore Basins

The Queen Charlotte Basin

The Queen Charlotte Basin is the best explored of the four offshore basins and the most likely to have commercially viable reserves of oil and gas. Layers of sandstone and shale rise in thickness to around three kilometres around Haida Gwaii's Graham Island. The geological conditions are similar to Alaska's Cook Inlet which has been producing oil since 1967, and large parts of the basin have been inside the oil and gas 'window' throughout its geological history, leading geologists to expect large hydrocarbon reserves in it. Over 50 gas, tar and oil seeps found onshore at Haida Gwaii have borne out this belief, as well as traces of oil and gas detected at eight offshore exploratory wells drilled by Shell Canada in the late 1960s. Applying 21st Century science and statistical techniques to these 20th Century findings leads petroleum geophysicists to conclude the basin contains a median estimate of 725 billion cubic metres of conventional gas and perhaps ten billion barrels of oil. The Queen Charlotte Basin is the most likely to see petroleum development if the provincial government achieves its stated objective of raising the offshore oil and gas moratorium.

The Georgia Basin

The Georgia Basin extends from Eastern Vancouver Island, to under the Gulf Islands and the Lower Mainland and south across the U.S. border. The sediments that make it up began accumulating around 100 million years ago, making it the oldest of B.C.'s four coastal basins.

The coal fields around Nanaimo and Comox were formed from the remains of ancient marshes and played an important role in British Columbia's early colonial history. Today the only coal extracted in this region is from the Quinsam mine near Campbell River.

23 exploratory wells have been drilled on the Canadian side of the basin in search of oil and gas. The basin's high temperatures throughout its history mean that gas is much more likely to have formed. The B.C. Government estimates a median probability of 185 billion cubic metres of natural gas in the basin (around 8% of the total proven gas reserves remaining in the province's northeast.

The Tofino Basin

The second oldest of B.C.'s offshore basins, the Tofino Basin was explored by Shell Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Drilling 8 exploratory wells and conducting seismic surveys, Shell was unable to find any commercial quantities of oil or gas before the provincial Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration Moratorium came into effect. These early test results, have been re-analyzed with the most up-to-date technology and lead geophysicists to estimate the basin's gas reserves at 266 BCM.

Geophysicists also believe there is a high probability that vast quantities of methane hydrates lie in deeper water just to the west of the Tofino Basin at the foot of the continental shelf. This form of natural gas is not yet recoverable with current technology but this may change in decades ahead.

The Winona Basin

Located beneath two kilometres of water at the base of the continental shelf, the Winona Basin is the youngest of the four offshore basins. The depth of the basin discouraged any petroleum exploration in the 1960s and '70s before the offshore oil and gas exploration moratorium went into effect. As a result very little is known about this basin and no official estimates of hydrocarbon reserves currently exist. Since then advances in offshore drilling and extraction technology have made it possible to extract oil and gas from these challenging depths, making it a future point of interest if the moratorium is ever raised.

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