Global Helium’s three core areas in Saskatchewan, as shows in the company’s November 2021 corporate presentation. Graphic courtesy Global Helium

For many years, Saskatchewan’s energy sector had a high number of junior oil producers, companies willing to take risks to prove up a resource. That sector has largely vanished over the last seven years, but there is a new one rising: helium wildcatters. There are four significant players at work in Saskatchewan, with two early movers, and two getting ready to drill next year.

One of those is Global Helium. Wes Siemens, president of Global Helium, spoke to Pipeline Online on Nov. 23, while he was on the road.

Calgary-based Global Helium has 10 people on board, between staffers and consultants. Calgary was a deliberate choice, due to the deep talent pool in oil and gas which can be applied directly to helium development, as well as manufacturing capacity.

Siemens said they are “extremely well-financed, and we have access to additional finance, anytime we need it.”

Explorer

“My background is 30 years in oil and natural gas, and so I certainly have worked all aspects of that side of the business,” Siemens said. A lot of that time was spent in exploration.

Brad Nichol, Global’s executive chairman and CEO, contacted Siemens about taking an existing helium company public. It was a private company out of San Francisco called Yellow Line, formed a number of years ago. It had acquired some permits on Crown land in Saskatchewan. “With COVID, and other things, they really didn’t get after it. And then Brad, through a number of other investors suggested that we take it public. I was asked to formulate the business plan and the legal framework in order to launch that publicly.”

Global Helium was listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange (CSE:HECO) in May.

“At the time it was formed, they had two permits. Today, we have over 20 permits, and we have 1.2 million acres, and we’ve stocked up the company with a number of folks,” Siemens said.

Going for the big fish

Early in the game, Global is identifying its future customers, and they’re going after the big fish.

One of the founders has ties to marketing helium for cooling for magnetic resonance imaging. “This individual’s really connected on the downstream side. He has connections into Asia and into Europe, of some of the largest helium users. And that gives us strategic advantage, knowing that when we get to be a helium player, we can sell large volumes of liquefied helium to markets in Europe and Asia with direct connections that we have there,” Siemens said.

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“We’ve also got connections into the United States to some of the biggest suppliers of helium. So our strategy is, we’re not going to be selling little containers to hundreds or thousands of companies. We’re going to be targeting a handful of large strategic helium customers that we have identified and have access to today.”

Wes Siemens. LinkedIn

 

The company was founded on the downstream side. Siemens said, “My background is in upstream oil and gas with a lot of experience in exploration appraisal and development of both oil and natural gas fields, both in Canada and internationally. My expertise includes identifying these opportunities and making sure we’re capturing the right geological conditions. And we’re drilling the right wells for the right reasons and having a portfolio that sets us up for success.”

Siemens is a reservoir engineer, born in Saskatoon, and lived in Regina. “I grew up between Saskatchewan and Alberta, and I went to university in Edmonton and got my engineering degree,” he said. He spent 21 years working with Nexen and its predecessor companies.

As a reservoir engineer, he worked with geologists and geophysicists on exploration projects around the world. “I would be running the development plan, the risk assessments, the appraisal plan, the economics. Even if we make a discovery, let’s say an offshore discovery of oil, is it even commercial? That was my job, to figure out how do we make money.”

Wildcatting

“We’re hiring a lot of upstream expertise to explore,” he said. There’s a number of older discoveries, in addition to the current players – North American Helium, Royal Helium, Helium Evolution and Global Helium, he noted. “The industry, and the geology, is still very much wildcat, to go out and try to make some big discoveries. And I think the point being is, we think upstream excellence, to be able to explore, is a key attribute that these companies, and our company, needs to have in order to excel. It’s not going to be easy to just go out, plunk down wells and make big discoveries.”

Here’s an example of structure identifed in 2D seismic that Global Helium is looking at, a seen in the company’s November 2021 corporate presentation. Graphic courtesy Global Helium

Exploration methodology

Like the other players, they may have over a million acres permitted, but it’s picking the right ten acres here and there to drill that will make the difference between success and failure.

Siemens said, “One of our strategies, I think it’s really important, is we recognize that a lot of the big structures in Alberta and Saskatchewan were actually drilled in the 40s and 50s. Companies like Imperial Oil, Marathon Oil and others came up and started drilling big structures in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Imperial Oil, for example, drilled 100 wells before they hit the big discovery at Leduc. And in those days, they had very simple seismic and picked locations using surface features. They would see surface expressions of what might be happening underground, like a large four-way closure structure, and they would come in and they would drill these structures.

“We’ve gone back and researched a lot of those early wells that were drilled in Saskatchewan. And we’ve been buying land on or near these large structures. And we use one example on our website of a prospect called Lawson, which Imperial drilled in 1944. They walked away because they found non-combustible gas. They were exploring for oil and natural gas and if you find nitrogen and helium that doesn’t burn, they just abandoned the well and moved on. One of our strategies was to go back and look in the old records to find the big structures and pick up the acreage to go back and re-drill them.”

They’ve been looking at old drill stem tests to point the way.

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They’ve purchased “a significant amount of seismic,” he said. “We had a seismic program earlier this year, and we’re just about to undertake another program. We are shooting a 65 kilometre program and we’re buying more seismic. Between shooting and purchasing, we have between 100 and 150 kilometers of seismic.”

This is all 2D seismic. “We’re looking at 2D seismic over the key structures that we’ve already identified. We’re shooting more 2D, along with purchasing other 2D, in order to identify some other structures. I think when we get ready to drill, we might shoot some 3D. Because we’re chasing bigger structures, 2D is often good enough to drill your first well, and then with a success, then you might choose 3D in order to develop it.”

Global has identified three core areas. The first is northeast of Swift Current and has had helium shows of 1.5 to 2.45 per cent from previous wells nearby. While they don’t have the land that 2.45 per cent well is on, as it was scooped up by another helium explorer, they have land a few kilometres away.

The second core area is about 100 kilometres south of Regina, near Bengough. Siemens noted that Royal Helium is active on acreage adjacent to theirs.

The third area is along the Montana border, south of Frontier, Saskatchewan. “There’s been some helium discoveries on the Montana side, and we’re trying to project those into Saskatchewan,” he said.

“Right now, our main seismic programs are in core area one, northeast of Swift Current. And we are purchasing seismic in the other two core areas. We’re also looking at gravity surveys and aerial magnetic surveys.

“When you have such a large land base, you can actually go to some of these older technologies that can help us look regionally for large structures. And then we’ll focus in on another seismic program next year. With the program that we’re shooting and seismic we purchased already, that should give us three to five drill targets that we’re ready to drill. I’m hoping that we’re drilling by Q2 next year.”

“I would like to see us drilling a three to five well program, all back-to-back. We will identify our top targets and then we would bring in the rig, and we would drill all three, four or five of them.

“Once the seismic program is completed and analyzed, we’ll lock down what that program looks like and we would drill them all at once.”

They’re looking at depths around 2,000 metres. This is shallower than other helium explorers are doing, but that’s because the area around Swift Current is a shallower portion of the sedimentary basin. And like the others, they’re targeting the Deadwood formation, right above the Cambrian basement. But that’s not all they’re looking at.

“There are secondary targets in the Mississippian and Devonian,” as well, he noted.

Their three core areas have different geological setups. That was done deliberately.

Five things needed, similar to oil and gas

Siemens explained that the geological principles for finding helium are essentially the same as for finding oil and natural gas. He said, “In exploring for oil and gas, there are five things that need to happen for you to find it. The first one is source. You need oil and gas to have been created.

“And then the second is migration. It needs to migrate somewhere.

“The third thing that needs to happen, is there needs to be a trap, and needs need a structure, or stratigraphic traps, so that oil or natural gas can get trapped there.

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“The fourth thing you need is a seal. When it gets trapped there, a seal is needed so it can’t escape. It needs the seal to be not only sufficient, but that that structure and seal needs to be in place before the migration occurs. And it needs to be competent for hundreds of millions of years, so that the gas and oil doesn’t leak out.

“And then the fifth thing you need is reservoir quality. That zone where that oil and gas is trapped, that rock quality needs to be sufficiently permeable, that when you drill a well, and whether you’re fracking or not, that rock quality is sufficient so that oil and gas can come out. And the same principles apply to helium. The only difference is the source and migration is a little bit different. But everything else, structure, seal, and reservoir all have to be present, to have a commercial discovery.”

Whether it’s the Devonian, the Mississippian, or the Cambrian, all of those zones need all of those five attributes. It’s nice to have two or three zones to go after with each well.

Land rush

Global made announcements of land acquisitions this fall. A map in a competitor’s corporate presentation shows much of southern Saskatchewan, basically everything west of the Third Meridian to the Alberta border, and south of Township 19, has been bought up. Substantial portions east of the Third Meridian are also taken. Asked if we’re in a land rush, and if there is anything left, Siemens said, “I think the chess board will be set over the next six to nine months, and that the land rush has been going on for about a year. North American Helium got in early. They’re a private company and I think they were doing it more quietly. But in the last year, the land rush really kicked into gear and I don’t know if there’ll be much left, of any size, nine months from now.”

“Anybody who’s done a significant amount of exploration will tell you that, you know a lot, but you don’t know a lot. And for me, it’s healthy, that we have competitors that are drilling wells, different targets, different ideas. And that was the other reason we have three areas, is all those competitor companies that we talked about, they’re going to be drilling wells nearby us. If they’re bad wells, we’ll learn from that. And if they’re good wells, we’ll learn from that, too. So, I see that as really healthy.”

He reflected on his experience doing exploration around the world, saying, “Whether you’re offshore Brazil, or any part of the world, when you go into a new basin, if you drill one well, and you leave; you won’t be successful. You need to drill a number of wells, learn, and be committed.

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Helium Action Plan

On Nov. 15, Saskatchewan Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre released a Helium Action Plan. Asked if they had been consulted during its creation, Siemens said they had, about a year ago, before he was with the company, as well as before it was released.

Part of the plan is a 4.25 per cent royalty. Asked what he thought of it, Siemens said, “Royalties are paid on cashflow. And people, historically, would say royalties are bad, because you might not make any profit, and then you’re paying all these royalties upfront. But from the government’s point of view, you want to have money coming in as soon as you can. And that’s what the royalties are for. But if someone’s charging a very high royalty, that is negative, and it will reduce investment. But in this case, four and a quarter percent royalty is absolutely fantastic. And it is a real incentive to be drilling in Saskatchewan, instead of instead of other jurisdictions.”

Drilling to production

How long would it take from drilling to producing their first tank of helium? Siemens responded that Saskatchewan’s helium development is targeted specifically at helium, not as byproduct of natural gas production. And that’s a good thing, because it simplifies things, because you’re not dealing with hydrocarbons. It means the helium is a lot cheaper to process, because whatever isn’t helium is principally nitrogen, which makes up 79 per cent of the atmosphere, and is not a greenhouse gas. It can be vented without any issue.

But it could also be used industrially, potentially for fertilizer production.

“You can actually put a membrane system on your well, and get to a pretty high helium purity, and you can vent the nitrogen because it’s harmless. And now you can actually have a product that you can truck to sales right off the wellhead.”

If additional drilling proves up the resources, they would build their own purification facility, which would take 12 to 18 months.

Like the other explorers, Siemens talks about basically two levels of processing – purification and liquefaction. To use an oilfield analogy, purification would be battery-level processing, while liquefaction is closer to refining. You need size and scale for liquefaction, but that’s the goal everyone’s been talking about. Liquified helium is about one eighth the volume of gaseous helium, and much more valuable.

“Some of the key industry players that we’ve talked about, they might want to work together to put together a liquefaction facility. Or, if somebody makes a very large discovery, they might take that on, on their own. And I know in the Saskatchewan government’s four-point plan, I know they’d be looking to help support both liquid purification and liquefaction facilities,” Siemens said.

Crude helium is around 90 per cent helium. It’s good enough for balloons. But different users require different levels of purification. One term used is “five nines,” which means 99.999 per cent pure, which is really close to being 100 per cent. But for clients who are using it for cooling, such as Global’s aforementioned potential customers, liquefied helium can be sold anywhere. “Especially if you’re taking that internationally, you’ll want to liquefy it, and then send it to Europe and to Asia,” he said.

There aren’t any helium liquefication plants in Canada. A liquefaction plant would be around $50 to $100 million, he said, a lot less expensive than an oilsands project, for instance. North American Helium’s recent Battle Creek purification plant was $32 million.

 

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This is Part 5 in a series regarding helium development in Saskatchewan.

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 1: Saskatchewan announces Helium Action Plan, with goal of 10 per cent of global production by 2030

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 2: The role of incentives, and future revenue from helium development in Saskatchewan

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 3: Our place in global production and minimizing environmental impact

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 4: Helium development is entirely dependent on oil and gas expertise and services

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 5: Getting into the helium wildcatting game: Global Helium

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 6: Royal Helium finds helium in its first two targeted wells in southeast Saskatchewan

Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 7: Saskatchewan releases geological study into helium across southern part of province