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Will Quebec be a gas, gas, gas? Fund managers are making big bets on juniors targeting the Utica shale region SHIRLEY WON From Wednesday's Globe and Mail May 28, 2008 at 7:21 AM EDT Quebec may seem like an unlikely hot spot for natural gas exploration, but some investors are digging deeper into unconventional resource prospects in the province. Shares of junior gas explorers targeting the Utica shale region in the St. Lawrence lowlands have surged recently, with some fund managers making big bets on potential winners. "It could be a very large gas discovery for Canada and Quebec," said Eric Sprott, chief executive officer and a manager with Sprott Asset Management Inc. "We probably started [accumulating stock] six months ago, but we went in earnest eight weeks ago." Toronto-based Sprott Asset Management, through several of its funds, holds 14 per cent of Gastem Inc., 15 per cent of Questerre Corp. and 13 per cent of Altai Resources Inc., according to Bloomberg. Forest Oil Corp. The Globe and Mail The Quebec shale play, which involves drilling for gas by fracturing dense rock, focuses on an area south of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. Interest has grown in the region since April, when Forest Oil Corp., a Denver-based oil and gas company, announced a significant discovery there after testing two vertical wells. Forest Oil said its Quebec assets may hold as much as four trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, and that the Utica shale has similar rock properties to the Barnett shale in Texas - the largest U.S. onshore gas field. Quebec has been known to have natural gas reserves, but advanced horizontal drilling techniques and higher gas prices are now only making the play potentially economically viable, observers say. Forest Oil, which has several junior partners in the region, will drill three horizontal wells in Quebec this summer. It has targeted its first production for next year, and full-scale drilling for 2010. Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc. also plans to drill in Quebec in late summer. The presence of the majors gives this play more credibility, said Wellington West Capital Markets analyst Kim Page. "Talisman has indicated it is budgeting $100- to $130-million for Quebec," Mr. Page said. "The return opportunity, if this play is commercially viable, is very high." But it is the juniors that "provide the greatest upside potential," when investing, said analyst Vic Vallance of Fraser Mackenzie Ltd. The analyst has a "buy" rating on Gastem and Questerre, saying they have properties in the "sweet spot" of the play. He has no price targets on these juniors because "it's so early stage and speculative." Montreal-based Gastem is partnered with Forest Oil, Questerre and Epsilon Energy Ltd. in the Yamaska permit of the St. Lawrence lowlands. An important catalyst for Gastem's stock could come from results of the drilling of two of Forest Oil's wells this summer, Mr. Vallance said. Forest's third well is in partnership with Junex Inc. Drilling results are also a potential catalyst for the stock of Calgary-based Questerre, which is also partnered with Talisman in its drilling program, Mr. Vallance added. Toronto-based Northern Rivers Capital Management Inc. owns 11 per cent of Gastem through its four funds. "The fact that it is in all the funds reflects how bullish we are," said Alex Ruus, a hedge fund manager with Northern Rivers. Mr. Ruus was on site when Forest Oil began drilling on Gastem's property last summer. "I became quite convinced that there was probably a commercial discovery here." It was Gastem's management that got Forest Oil interested, he added. "Forest Oil is the operator that is driving this [play], going forward." He has scenarios valuing Gastem from $1 to $40 a share, but his target is now more than $10, based on current data. The play is attractive because there is a ready-made local market, as Quebec imports gas from Western Canada, and there is a network of nearby pipelines, he said. "If this thing becomes as big as we think it will, you will see Quebec starting to export natural gas to Ontario, and New York State." Paul MacDonald, with Marvrix Fund Management Inc., sold all of his shares in Junex during their recent rally, but still holds more than 750,000 of its warrants in three Marvrix resource flow-through funds. Mr. MacDonald bought Junex at $1.25 to $1.30 a share, but the stock shot well past his near-term target of $2.25. "With the best-case assumptions, you can see $30 on Junex," he said. "But there are still risks to the downside. ... It's still high risk, high return." http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080528.wrgas28/BNStory/SpecialEvents2/Quebec/