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CALGARY, Alberta, May 25 (Reuters) - Alberta oil and gas land sales have reached levels not seen since 2014 thanks to a rush to buy land in an oil-rich pocket of the Duvernay shale play that was until recently written off as being uneconomic.
Resurgent land prices are a rare bright spot for Canada's energy industry, dominated by northern Alberta's oil sands projects, a sector that global companies have withdrawn from this year because of high costs and slow returns on capital.
The Duvernay East Shale Basin is more similar to shale plays in the United States, where hydraulic fracking can unlock oil trapped between rocks in a matter of months.
The Duvernay Formation itself is a 130,000 square kilometre play, a fifth of the size of the province of Alberta, that holds proved reserves of 354 million barrels of oil equivalent, making it one of Canada's largest shale plays.
"People are really getting interested in the area because it has more light oil," said Per Pedersen, a University of Calgary geoscience professor. "It could be significant in volume because it's a pretty big play."
To be sure, exploration in the East Shale Basin is in its infancy, spurred on by improving fracking technology, and geologists are still trying to gauge how much light crude the zone near Red Deer, central Alberta, may hold.
But average year-to-date land sale prices across Alberta are nearly three times higher than the same period in 2016 and more than double 2015 levels, led by buying in the East Shale Basin, according to provincial government data.
At Wednesday's fortnightly auction the lease on a parcel of land in the Duvernay East Shale Basin sold for C$4,300 a hectare, 12 times the average year-to-date price at the sale of C$360 a hectare. The average year-to-date price in May 2014 was C$451 a hectare.
The spike in land prices is set to benefit companies such as PrairieSky Royalty that own significant titles in the area.
Firms have spent around C$70 million ($52 million) snapping up East Shale Basin land so far in 2017, accounting for more than 50 percent of total Alberta crown land sales this year, according to a TD Securities note to clients.
Vesta Energy, one of two private companies leading the land purchases, last week secured C$305 million ($226 million) in financing led by private equity firms Riverstone Holdings and JOG Capital.
By applying lessons from U.S. shale plays, the East Shale Basin is developing into one of the most economic plays in North America, Riverstone managing director Olivia Wassenaar said in a statement.
Initial results from operators show it is shallower and cheaper to drill than the Kaybob Duvernay oil play to the northeast, where Encana Corp and Chevron Corp produce liquids-rich natural gas.
While results prove the play is economic at $50 per barrel crude, some companies are getting wary of the prices even as they move from the gassy western side of Duvernay to the oilier east.
"It's still a high risk strategy but things are gaining momentum very quickly. (Prices) are getting pretty frothy," Darryl Metcalfe, CEO of Artis Exploration said, which like Vesta has been one of the first companies to buy up land.
$1 = 1.3469 Canadian dollars Reporting by Nia Williams; editing by Grant McCool