As there is a slowdown in the western Canadian oil industry, a new player is picking up the slack; helium.
In the universe, helium is the second most common element after hydrogen, but that’s in the universe. Here on Earth, helium is somewhat rarer and as world reserves decline, the price is going up. That’s spurred new interest in Canada’s prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Helium is the result of the decay of uranium and thorium, both of which are present in Saskatchewan. The resulting gas gets trapped deep underground in sedimentary rock when conditions are right.
While it may be a source for party balloons for most people, the declining reserves are critical in other areas such as research where it is used as a coolant in superconductors due to its ability to remain liquid at extremely low temperatures. It’s also used in rocketry and in plasma welding.
The world market is expanding as the U.S government (which has heavily influenced world markets) sells off its own strategic reserves and leaves the market to the private sector by 2021.
Several new wells have been drilled and plans may include a new liquefaction plant. An American firm has already built a $10-million helium separation plant in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan.
From 2017 to early 2019 some 83 helium permits, and 53 leases were issued by Saskatchewan.
The U.S currently supplies about 10 per cent of global demand, but companies exploring in the Canadian west expect they’ll be ready to fill that demand as American wells decline.