Canadian Coalbed Methane Stocks: 7 Things to Know Before Investing

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One of Canada’s leading petrogeologists, Dr. David Marchioni, cautions investors on what they should be looking for, before investing in the red-hot Canadian Coalbed Methane (CBM) Stocks. There are 7 Key Ingredients that make up a successful CBM play. He warns that some Canadian CBM plays are pricey and mature, although many investors are still climbing onboard the bandwagon. Dr. Marchioni also names his favorite CBM stocks.
coal, china, coal bed methane, natural gas, stocks, investing, canada, exploration, mining
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 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 CBM exploration program in China.

Our series of telephone and email interviews began while Dr. Marchioni sat on a drill rig in Alberta 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 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 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 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.

4) PERMEABILITY

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.

5) WATER

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 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).

6) FUNDING

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 note: During a previous interview, Dr. Marchioni commented about his preference for Pacific Asia China Energy land position in China because comparable land in western Canada would have cost ?100 million or more.?
7) INFRASTRUCTURE

The geology only tells you what 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.

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Are There Any Great, New Mining Stocks Left?

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Where are the hot and cold spots around the world for resource investors? The stampeding bull market in commodities has investors reaching for new ideas. Highly respected newsletter writer Lawrence Roulston of esource Opportunities?favors Canada, Alaska and China for investing in mining and energy companies.
China, Canada, Alaska, coalbed methane, stocks, investing, finance, metals, minerals, coal, gold
Where are the hot and cold spots around the world for resource investors? The stampeding bull market in commodities has investors reaching for new ideas. Highly respected newsletter writer Lawrence Roulston of esource Opportunities?favors Canada, Alaska and China for investing in mining and energy companies.

StockInterview: Let get the cold spots out of the way so investors are forewarned about which countries to avoid.

Lawrence Roulston:
A lot of the (mining) companies that went overseas in decades back are recognizing the political difficulties with dealing in some jurisdictions. These include places like Indonesia, Columbia, and several of the African countries, such as Congo, Sudan and Eritrea. All of those places where there are great geological prospects, but are more and more risky to deal in. I think some of that mining is coming back closer to home, which is right here in Canada.

StockInterview: So Canada is on your “favorite countries?list?

Lawrence Roulston:
At the very top of the list would be Canada. As of right now, taking into account the geological potential, political situation, infrastructure and all the other issues, I would (highly) rate Canada and British Columbia. They have had decades of work. But for the last decade, there hasn’t been very much going on. The companies are just coming back and picking up with what been going on. Similarly, Ontario, Quebec ?tremendous geological potential ?and it been kind of ignored for a long time. Canada is now the most important place in the world for diamonds, representing 50 percent on exploration spending for diamonds.

StockInterview: Is there a specific mineral or metal that makes Canada especially appealing?

Lawrence Roulston:
It the whole gambit. Canada has always been one of the top metal producers, and it coming back to life. Of course, gold is at the top of the list, but also base metals and uranium. The Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan is far and away the most important area to be looking at, geologically. It currently the biggest source of uranium and contains the highest grade deposit. There are other uranium prospective areas in Canada that are just emerging. The Thelon Basin in the Northwest Territories, north of the Athabasca Basin, is very similar, geologically, to the Athabasca Basin. It had some work done in the 1970s, and it been pretty much ignored until very recently. Going a little further north to Hornby Basin, it is a similar kind of situation. In Labrador, the central mineral belt is just emerging as a very important place to be looking for uranium.

StockInterview: Do you have any favorite companies, which you are following and which have good prospects?

Lawrence Roulston:
NovaGold Resources (TSX: NG; Amex: NG), for example, with the Galore Creek. It a billion ton deposit with enormous metal content. (Editor Note: Galore Creek has been called one of the largest and highest grade undeveloped porphyry-related gold-silver-copper deposits in North America.)

StockInterview: What is another of your favorite areas, which has gone largely undetected during this bull market?

Lawrence Roulston:
Nevada would be at the top of the list of anywhere in the world to be working and Alaska right behind it. There is huge potential in Alaska. Mining companies have only scratched the surface of exploration up there. Two of the largest metal deposits in the world are in Alaska. These are both discoveries going back decades, but work over the last couple of years has brought them to the point where theye now recognized as among the largest metal deposits in the world: Donlin Creek, a 25-plus million ounce gold deposit, and the Pebble deposit, held by Northern Dynasty (TSX: NDM). The Pebble deposit is significantly larger than, and of comparable grade to, Ivanhoe (NYSE: IVN) Oyu Tolgoi (copper-gold) deposit in Mongolia. (Editor Note: The Donlin Creek project is a joint venture between NovaGold and Barrick Gold.)

StockInterview: Anywhere else in the world where you can find a great, but still “new?resource investment opportunity, in light of how hard the commodities bull has been stampeding the past few years?

Lawrence Roulston:
Often the better value to be had, or the better opportunity, is in being a little bit out of step with the crowd. One of the areas offering some outstanding opportunities is China.
China has done a tremendous amount of geological work, over the last few decades, but all from the perspective of finding, and then quickly developing, small deposits. There has been very little effort devoted to taking a bigger picture type look at China. The companies that have been able to take a kind of bigger picture look at China have begun to develop what I think are going to be some pretty spectacular results over time.

StockInterview: Isn’t it tough, though, doing business in China?

Lawrence Roulston:
There is still a perception out there that China is a difficult place to do business. Most people from the west walk into China cold and try to do a deal. It would be impossible for them. But, for western companies that are able to team up with groups that are well established within China ?so that theye able to find their way through the system over there ?then there are outstanding opportunities. There are mountains of geological information ?all in Chinese, of course. You’ve got to be able to work within that system and get the information, know how to put the deals together.

StockInterview: What do you mean by “knowing how to put the deals together??
Lawrence Roulston:
If I was to go over to China and try to do a deal to get access to a coalbed methane property, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to begin. On the other hand, I could walk into the Petroleum Club in Calgary, and meet a half dozen guys and talk to them. I could build on my leads, and probably in a day be talking about a deal. When you go into China, unless you have somebody on your team that can get into the system and deal with the people, because of language issues, cultural issues and just having access to the information and knowing what sort of terms that they might be looking for?It a different culture from every perspective, and not the least of which is a different way of doing business.

StockInterview: In your April issue, you recommended one company, which overcame those hurdles, meets your criteria and already has a coalbed methane deal in China.

Lawrence Roulston:
Pacific Asia China Energy (TSX: PCE) established connections in China. They can draw on their contacts and their network. They can get into see the right people, where they can actually talk seriously about doing deals, and have an enormous leg up over somebody that walked in cold and tried to establish and build contacts and put a deal together. I think it is an absolutely outstanding opportunity that they’ve seized on.

StockInterview: There are many coalbed methane opportunities in Alberta. Why look to China?

Lawrence Roulston:
One of the things that makes China interesting is the entry cost to get into a coalbed methane (CBM) play in China is fairly modest. For example, to go to Alberta, or anywhere in the United States, and get access to the exploration rights, or exploitation rights, is enormously expensive. In China, they walked in and, for a fairly modest up-front commitment, obtained a control position in a CBM prospect.

StockInterview: How does Pacific Asia China Energy coalbed methane property in Guizhou, China rate against other coalbed methane plays?

Lawrence Roulston:
I think it an outstanding opportunity. Chinese government agencies have done an enormous amount of work at delineating the coal. To be able to step into that amount of data as a starting point to build up their CBM resource? The bottom line is that theye not out there looking for coal. They know exactly where the material is, and theye able to quickly start defining the issues like recoverability. Theye drilling in order to establish the basic physical parameters of the flow rates and the content within the coal. I think the companies which are able to effectively exploit the CBM technology in China are going to be the pioneers in that area.

StockInterview: To Americans, any business in China might appear to be “pioneering,?since most of still think of China as a third world country.

Lawrence Roulston:
I’ve been to China many times and I’ve been to parts of China where most people, as tourists, would never get anywhere near, because I go there to look at mineral exploration projects and mining projects. I’ve been to every corner of the country as well as the major cities. What I see happening everywhere I go is a pace of development that I’ve never seen anywhere else in my life, anywhere in the world. That is, 1.3 billion people are going from a basically rural farm-based economy to a modern industrial economy at a pace that has just never before been conceived.

StockInterview: How do you quantify that?

Lawrence Roulston:
This is a number that most people won’t get, and you won’t get until you’ve been over there and have seen it. There are 300 million people in China that are already well into the middle class. By middle class, I am comparing (the Chinese middle class) to the same absolute standards as we would apply in Canada or the United States in terms of dollars in your bank account, value of your house and your car, and everything else. There are 300 million people that have already achieved that status, which is more than the people at that status in North America. There are another 1 billion people who are busting their butts to get to that level.

StockInterview: But isn’t the rest of the world rural population just as industrious and ambitious?

Lawrence Roulston:
I’ve been in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. If you go into any of those areas and you walk into the small towns, a lot of people are sitting around drinking coffee, crying the blues and complaining about how terrible life is. Go into a similar area in China, and the people are out working in the fields. In the middle of winter, theye fixing up their fences, the dams and terraces, and clearing rocks, removing trees and stuff like that. It a high level of industry I’ve never seen in any other part of the world. So it goes from that ground level right up to the entrepreneurs, and the guys who are building the high rise condominium complexes in Shanghai.

StockInterview: How long will it take before American investors realize the impact China has on the global economy?

Lawrence Roulston:
It going to happen in a gradual way. I think those that keep their heads buried in the sand are going to get left behind as the world pulls ahead. I would suggest any investor in any company ask the question of the company: “Is that company involved in some way in China??There are a lot of North American companies that have a very significant presence in China in terms of doing business over there, of getting established, of selling products or manufacturing products in China.

StockInterview: Why is China so important with regards to this commodities bull market, and are there still opportunities for investors?

Lawrence Roulston:
There is a lot of geological potential, and there is the perception that it difficult. Therefore, there isn’t yet a big crowd of people over there chasing after deals. The flip side of it is that China and its neighbors in southeast Asia, representing 3 billion people, are going through the modern industrialization process. That is going to continue to create a massive demand for metals for, I believe, a decade or probably even a couple of decades into the future.

StockInterview: And most likely, the U.S. investor is going to be left behind or the last one into the pond?

Lawrence Roulston:
The bottom line is that Americans tend to be more inward focused. The other evening I was having dinner with an oil man from Texas who had spent a lot of time in China. He had seen China first hand and was very bullish. I asked him, “How many of your countrymen do you think really get it about China??And he responded, “Oh, about five.?Then he said, “Congress doesn’t get it, investors don’t get it and the man in the street doesn’t get it.?Americans just don’t understand what happening over there yet.

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