CALGARY — With only a few months left in the year, Alberta is on track to post its worst oil and gas land sales revenue in more than two decades.
As of late August the auctions for land, in which the province leases out land rights to energy companies, have pulled in $209 million.
"It's absolutely the worst that we've seen the 21 years that I've been doing this," said Winston Gaskin, president of Standard Land Company, which assists companies in buying land rights.
In 2014 Alberta sold $494 million worth of energy land tenures, which was the lowest since 2002. But given the current pace of sales, Alberta could see its lowest land sales revenue since 1992, when the province sold a paltry $149 million in land rights.
That compares with a high-water mark of $3.5 billion the province pulled in from land sales in 2011 as excitement in the Duvernay shale formation helped drive up prices.
The reduced revenue this year comes as companies slash budgets across the board.
"Without a doubt this is the worst transition that we've seen, from normal commodity prices to low commodity prices, and then the corresponding lower activity levels all around," said Gaskin.
"Exploration budgets are the first things that get cut in times like these, so that impacts the sales."
The sales are a reflection of energy prices, not Alberta's future energy potential, said Dan McFadyen, executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, and former Alberta deputy energy minister.
"It's a sign of the pricing world we're in now, and the uncertainty that's creating for a lot of producers," said McFadyen.
"Land sales are about forward inventory for companies in terms of future drilling prospects, so I think companies right now are reserving their cash flow to focus on their existing inventory."
McFadyen said there is greater uncertainty over prices now than during the 2009 downturn, when the province still recorded brisk land sales of $731 million.
And while emphasizing that oil prices are playing a much greater role, he said the royalty review by Alberta's new NDP government is adding an extra layer of uncertainty for producers.
"They're obviously nervous about it, they're anxious to see it completed and come to a conclusion, and that may be adding to all the risks they're weighing and assessing right now," McFadyen said.
However, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, which aren't conducting royalty reviews, are not faring any better on land sales.
B.C. has sold only $8.5 million worth of petroleum and natural gas tenures as of mid-August, compared with $383 million in all of 2014 and a bumper year of $2.7 billion in 2008.
In Saskatchewan, the government had pulled in $35.7 million from exploration licences and leases as of mid-August, while last year it received $197.9 million.
For the 2015-16 fiscal year, Alberta is projecting land sales of $315 million, making up 11 per cent of the province's oil and gas revenue.
Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press