North American Tight Light Oil

Key facts

  • Horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracture stimulation, the same extraction technique so successful in allowing shale gas production, has proved to work equally well for releasing light crude oil trapped in low permeability (e.g., tight) shale, sandstone, or carbonate rock formations.
  • Tight oil production (also called shale oil in some cases) has reversed a decline in U.S. crude oil production and Western Canadian light oil production.
  • In Western Canada, potential and producing tight oil resources are found in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  In Eastern Canada, the potential for tight oil resources has been claimed in Anticosti Island in Quebec and Western Newfoundland. 
  • Tight light oil is emerging as an important new source of energy supply in the United States and Canada.  Technological advancements in drilling (long-reach horizontal well bores) and completion techniques (multi-stage hydraulic fracturing) is increasing the outlook for the supply of crude oil in North America.
  • In Canada, there is already more than 160 kb/d (thousand barrels per day) of tight light oil production in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. By 2014, Alberta's tight light oil plays could add an additional 170 kb/d of production. For comparison, in 2010, Newfoundland's offshore crude oil production was 276 kb/d.
  • North America now has the fastest growing oil-production outside of OPEC.  North American production is expected to jump by 11 per cent over the 2010 to 2016 period1 due to two main factors:  1) increased output from Canada's oil sands; and, 2) production from onshore tight light oil formations. 

Frequently asked questions

What is “tight light oil” or “tight shale oil”?

Tight light oil, also known as tight shale oil, is found in sedimentary rock formations that are characterized by very low permeability.  The flow of oil from the rock to the well bore is limited by the largely impermeable fine-grained nature of the oil-hosting rock thus the basis for the term “tight”. While some tight light oil plays produce oil directly from shales, most tight oil is produced from low-permeability siltstones, sandstones, limestones and dolostones that are associated with the shales from which the oil has been generated. Oil trapped in these relatively impermeable rock units requires well stimulation techniques including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

What is the difference between tight light oil and oil shale?

The term tight light oil does not include resources commonly known as oil shales which refer to kerogen-rich shales (decomposed organic matter still in solid state) that must be either heated in situ and produced or, surface mined and heated to produce the oil.  Oil shale, being composed of solid hydrocarbon (kerogen) in a sedimentary rock unit, cannot be extracted using the same cost effective production techniques as tight light oil.  Commercially-viable oil shale production does not yet exist in North America due to high costs, and the need to improve technology.  To avoid confusion between the two types of oil production (oil shale and shale oil) the words “tight light oil” is considered a better term to use in reference to tight shale oil developments.

Multi-stage hydraulic fracturing  in horizontal and vertical wells

Multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in horizontal and vertical wells
Source:  National Energy Board, December 2011

How is tight light oil produced?

Shale's tight sands and tight carbonates are unconventional sources of oil, as the reservoir rock must be stimulated or fractured to enable the oil to flow.  Hydraulic fracturing is a technique that has been used by the oil and gas industry for the past 60 years.  Once considered uneconomic to produce, technological advancements are helping to unlock enormous quantities of oil from these tight reservoirs. 

The real breakthrough came with the introduction of long reach horizontal drilling (up to 2-3km), combined with multi-stage hydraulic fracturing which allows drilling companies to systematically isolate and fracture individual zones.  The essence of the process is to pump fracking fluid [which can be a fluid such as water or oil or a gas such as nitrogen, CO2 or gellified propane as well as proppant (e.g. sand or ceramic beads) and small amounts of chemical
additives] down the wellbore at increasing pressure until the formation breaks, creating a micro-fracture network.  After the formation is fractured, the proppant is left in the fissures to “prop” open the cracks which allows the oil to flow to the well.  Without the proppant, the pressure from the above rock would tend to close the tiny fractures.

Where is tight light oil found in North America?

Tight light oil resources are largely found in a belt ranging from central Alberta to southern Texas. Other prospective tight oil resources have been identified throughout the Rocky Mountain region, the US Gulf Coast region, and the northeastern United States and in eastern Canada (Anticosti Island and Western Newfoundland). The most notable tight light oil plays in North America include:  the Bakken play in North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Cardium play in Alberta, the Eagle Ford play in Texas, the Monterey/Santos play in California, the Utica play in Ohio and the Niobrara formation which straddles Wyoming and Colorado.

North American shale plays

North American shale plays (as of May 2011)
Source:  U.S. Energy Information Administration

In Western Canada, there is an abundance of tight light oil formations, both surrounding conventional oil reservoirs, like the Cardium Pembina oil field, and entirely new regional resource plays, like the Exshaw (often referred to as the Alberta Bakken) and the  Duvernay/  Muskwa formation in Alberta.  In the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), there are a variety of formations in four provinces that contain tight light oil including the following:

  • Bakken/Exshaw Formation (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia)
  • Cardium Formation and the Beaverhill Lake Group (Alberta)
  • Viking Formation (Alberta and Saskatchewan)
  • Lower Shaunavon Formation (Saskatchewan)
  • Montney/Doig Formation (B.C. and Alberta)
  • Duvernay/Muskwa Formation (Alberta)
  • Lower Amaranth Formation (Manitoba)

What is North America 's tight light oil production?

In the United States, tight light oil development began in the Bakken play in North Dakota and Montana.  Today, the Bakken Formation is the single largest source of U.S. tight oil production.  In June 2011, U.S. Bakken oil production reached nearly 400 kb/d.  In the Canadian portion of the Bakken oil play which stretches into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, production in March 2011, was over 78 kb/d2.  Other important sources of U.S. tight oil production include the Eagle Ford, Niobrara, Barnett and Monterey formations.

North America is now the fastest growing oil-producing region outside of OPEC.  Output is expected to jump by 11 per cent over the 2010 to 2016 period3 due to two main factors:  1) increased output from Canada's oil sands; and, 2) production from North American tight light oil formations.

Between 2010 and 2016, tight light oil production is set to be the single largest driver of U.S. oil production, growing by about 1 mb/d (million barrels per day), more than offsetting delayed developments in the Gulf of Mexico, and contributing to overall U.S. supply growth of +0.5 mb/d to 8.3 mb/d by 20164.

Tight light oil production has already reversed a decade long decline in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) conventional crude oil production. The WCSB light crude oil production at year end 2010 was about 9% higher than year end 2009 due to a significant increase in output of tight oil production.  

Tight oil development has the potential to add significant light oil production that had not been anticipated just five years ago.  In early 2011, total WCSB tight crude oil production was more than 160 kb/d.  For comparison, in 2010, Newfoundland's offshore crude oil production was 276 kb/d.  In Saskatchewan, light tight oil production in the first quarter of 2011 was 90 kb/d; while Manitoba's light tight oil production reached 25 kb/d.  The rest of the tight oil production is in the Province of Alberta as is seen in the “Canadian Tight Light Oil Production by Province” graph. By 2014, Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board estimates that Alberta's tight oil plays could add an additional 170 kb/d of light oil production5.

Canadian Tight Light Oil Production by Province

Canadian Tight Light Oil Production by Province

Source:  National Energy Board, December 2011 

How large are Canada and the U.S. “tight oil” resources?

A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and prepared by the research firm INTEK quantifies the amount of oil trapped in U.S. shale oil formations. About 24 billion barrels of “technically recoverable6” oil is trapped in shale oil formations in the lower 48 states with 15.42 billion barrels of that in the Monterey/Santos basin, 3.65 billion barrels in the Bakken, and 3.35 billion barrels in the Eagle Ford formation7

In Canada, companies working in the WCSB have so far identified just over 500 million barrels of proven and probable tight oil reserves and these estimates are expected to grow8 as exploration efforts expand.  So far, companies have publicly reported 225 million barrels of proved and probable reserves from Canada's portion of the Bakken Formation in Southern Saskatchewan and South West Manitoba.  In addition, 281 million barrels of proved and probable reserves have been identified elsewhere in the WCSB.  These oil reserves are located in the Cardium formation (Alberta 130 million barrels of reserves), the Viking formation (Alberta and Saskatchewan - 58 million barrels of reserves), and the Lower Shaunavon formation (Alberta 93 million barrels of reserves)9.

Tight light oil resources have also been postulated in eastern Canada.  In western Newfoundland, a well specifically designed to test the shale oil potential of the Green Point formation has recently been completed and the operator, as of January 2012, was carrying out various tests on the unit.  In Quebec, on Anticosti Island, the Upper Ordovician Macasty Shale (equivalent to the shale gas target Utica in southern Quebec) has been known to be an excellent hydrocarbon source rock for many years. Recently reported core analyses by some operators have indicated the presence of light oil in the fine-grained succession. The equivalent Utica Formation in Ohio is currently being developed as a major shale oil play by U.S. and International operators.

What are the economic benefits of tight light oil and hydrocarbon development in Canada?

The development of tight light oil resources has the potential to make significant economic contributions for Canadians. Economic benefits include jobs for Canadians, lease and royalty payments to the provincial governments that own the resources, and tax payments to municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Macroeconomic benefits also include increased investment, a stronger trade balance, and reduced dependence on imported energy.

The oil and gas sector is a major contributor to the Canadian economy, currently contributing more than 500 000 direct and indirect jobs across Canada. The Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) anticipates that the oil and gas industry will contribute more than $3.5 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years. Over the 2006 to 2010 period, the oil and gas industry paid an average of $22 billion per year to governments10.  This revenue is used for meeting government priorities, such as reducing taxes, reducing the deficit, supporting infrastructure projects and delivering a variety of programs and services to the public.

What is Natural Resources Canada's role in tight light oil development?

Natural Resources Canada develops geoscience information such as maps and other characterizations of hydrocarbon resources and aquifers.  Provinces commonly use this information in making decisions on the management and regulation of resources within their boundaries.

The Government of Canada is committed to working with the provinces and territories to ensure the necessary geoscience information is publicly accessible to promote the responsible development of Canada's natural resources.

What regulations govern tight light oil development in Canada?

Under Canada's Constitution, provinces own the onshore hydrocarbon resources within their provincial boundaries and are responsible for regulating resource development. Provincial regulatory bodies are constantly updating their regulatory frameworks to reflect the changing nature of hydrocarbon extraction technologies including tight light oil developments.  Numerous rules and regulations in Canada help to ensure safe operations, protection of the environment and resource conservation.

Each aspect of tight oil development (e.g., pre-drilling and drilling activities, hydraulic fracturing and production, resource management, abandonment and reclamation) is regulated in the jurisdiction where the activity is occurring.

How is drinking water protected?

Regulation of the oil and gas sector in Canada is designed to protect water resources during oil and gas development, including tight oil development. Specific regulations vary between jurisdictions, but in all cases steel casing and cement are used to isolate and protect groundwater zones from deeper oil, natural gas and saline water zones. 

Hydraulic fracturing is a proven technology already used safely in a large proportion of the roughly 11,000 oil and gas wells drilled each year in Canada; this technique is essential to the effective operation of the oil and gas sector; and it is routinely done without negative safety consequences or significant adverse environmental impacts. 

According to the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission (BCOGC), the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy Resources, and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), there has never been a confirmed case of groundwater contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing in British Columbia, Saskatchewan or Alberta, the three provinces where most oil and gas drilling activity in Canada occurs. 

Contact Information:Cameron Izzard, ES/PRB, Oil and Gas Division, 992-0608,
Denis Lavoie, Georesources and Regional Geology, Geological Survey of Canada, 418-654-2571.


1 IEA Medium Term Oil and Gas Market Report, After the Shale Gas Revolution its Oil's Turn, June 2011.

2 National Energy Board, Energy Briefing Note, Tight Oil Developments in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, December 2011.

3 IEA Medium Term Oil and Gas Market Report, After the Shale Gas Revolution its Oil's Turn, June 2011.

4 IEA Medium Term Oil and Gas Market Report, After the Shale Gas Revolution its Oil's Turn, June 2011.

5 National Energy Board, Energy Briefing Note, Tight Oil Developments in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, December 2011.

6 Technically recoverable oil resources – This is the estimated volume of oil that can be produced, and recovered from the subsurface, if costs are not considered a limiting factor.

7 U.S. Energy Information Administration, Review of Emerging Resources U.S. Shale Gas and Shale Oil Plays, July 2011.

8 National Energy Board, Energy Briefing Note, Tight Oil Developments in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, December 2011.

9 National Energy Board, Energy Briefing Note, Tight Oil Developments in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, December 2011.

10 Statistics Canada publication titled “Financial and Taxations Statistics for Enterprises”and ARC Financial.