Sask. government wants province to become world leader in helium production

·3 min read
 North American Helium's drilling site in southwest Saskatchewan. (Supplied by North American Helium/The Canadian Press - image credit)
North American Helium's drilling site in southwest Saskatchewan. (Supplied by North American Helium/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Saskatchewan government wants the province to be a world leader in helium production as global demand rises for the gas used in everything from MRIs to party balloons.

On Monday, the province released its Helium Action Plan, a wide-ranging document aimed at building the province's helium production to 10 per cent of global supply by 2030.

Currently, Saskatchewan produces about one per cent of the world's helium.

"Helium, as we know, is far more than party balloons. It's another future-facing commodity, boosting in advanced technology sectors, medical research, space exploration, nuclear energy generation and manufacturing semiconductors," said Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre.

There's no substitute for it. - Bronwyn Eyre

Helium's low boiling and liquefaction points, and its ability to easily conduct heat, make it sought after in medical fields for use in MRIs.

Helium is also used to cool nuclear reactors and as a temperature control in the aerospace industry.

"There's no substitute for it. Limited supply and surging demand, and that global demand is expected to rise significantly over the coming years, with estimates the helium market will double by 2030," Eyre said.

According to the province's Helium Action Plan, about 90 per cent of the world's helium supply comes from natural gas producers, who capture small quantities of helium from the natural gas stream during production.

Alternatively, helium can be extracted from the earth using wells. It's this method that the province hopes to capitalize on.

Canada has the fifth-largest known supply of helium in the world, with much of that residing in Saskatchewan, according to the province.

Government offering tax credits, cutting red tape

The province plans to boost helium production by offering companies a range of support including administrative help, a reduction in red tape and tax credits.

Patty Thomas, vice-president of geoscience with North American Helium, said the tax credits are essential to encouraging companies to risk drilling wells that may not produce.

"Each of these wells are a million dollars to drill. It's a big deal," Thomas said.

North American Helium operates a $32-million helium purification facility near Battle Creek in southwest Saskatchewan, where much of the province's helium activity is concentrated.

Eyre said there are nine active helium wells in the province, with an additional 24 wells in the drilling process.

By 2030, she anticipates there will be 150 helium wells in Saskatchewan.

The government estimates the increase in helium production will create about 500 new jobs and $500 million in annual exports.

"We see it as a welcome development," said Erika Ritchie, Opposition NDP critic for Environment Energy and Resources.

"We've been calling for diversification in our resource sector as a way to move forward, as a way that is going to be sustainable and prepare Saskatchewan workers for the clean energy economy."

Ritchie added that landowners need adequate protection from companies seeking property access.

Both Ritchie and Eyre touted helium's low greenhouse gas emissions and said skilled oilfield workers are well suited to the industry.

"Made in Saskatchewan helium is green. Our unique geology means we can produce helium from dedicated wells that have high concentrations but a low greenhouse gas emissions profile," Eyre said.

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