“We’re kind of at the equivalent of the oil and gas industry back in the ‘50s,” said Melinda Yurkowski, chief assistant geologist at the Saskatchewan Geological Survey.
“We’re just sort of learning the tricks and the tools that we need to explore… and develop helium.”
The price of helium has spiked in recent years, driven by decreasing supply and increasing demand. The U.S. government decided in 2015 to sell off its strategic reserves, limiting the amount available. And increased production of products like microchips and fibre optic cables, in which helium is used, has increased the need.
Saskatchewan has exported helium since the 1960s, she told Global News, and in the space race, NASA used Saskatchewan helium to help fuel rockets.
Yurkowski said there are now nearly 300 permits and leases to look for helium in the province, roughly 100 of which were received in the past year.
The Prairies are especially suited to helium.
“It’s been a tectonically stable area for a very long time and the helium, that is a byproduct of uranium and thorium, has been allowed to accumulate,” Yurkowski said.
Canada’s market also benefits from another type of stability.
Another major producer is Qatar, which has faced political challenges and blockades in getting its gas to market.
“The molecules that are being sourced in North America are going to be increasingly valuable just because of the geopolitical security that comes with the supply sources that exist now,” said Jeff Vogt, CEO of Weil Group Resources (WGR). WGR began harvesting helium from a facility near Mankota, Sask., in 2016.
He said the industry will keep growing with the new demand but that comparisons to another Canadian natural resource are exaggerated.
READ MORE: Helium in Saskatchewan
“It’s not like oil and gas,” he said, from Richmond, Va.
“It takes a lot more discernment, a lot more patience and capital, you just don’t turn it on when you find it, you have to build a rather capital-intensive processing facility.”
He also said a helium harvesting plant typically employs just two to four people in the facility, aside from the construction and transportation staff.
There are other challenges to helium becoming a major industry. Yurkowski said the potential amount of helium in the province is unknown and that finding it can be difficult.
The mining operation at Mankota was shut down in 2018, Yurkowski said. A new mine has been drilled and Vogt said they are looking to reactivate it in the near future. He also said WRG is expecting to have new sources active in the next two years but that it is likely to remain a niche industry.
-With files from the Canadian Press