Melinda Yurkowski is the assistant chief geologist of Saskatchewan. For much of the past decade, her research has focused on helium in the southern portion of the province. In November, she released a paper outlining its prospectivity. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

REGINA – For many years now, Melinda Yurkowski’s work has been lighter than air. Literally.

The assistant chief geologist of Saskatchewan has spent much of the past decade focusing her geological research on helium. In a province where oil is king, potash is queen, and uranium is the jack when it comes to mineral resources, helium is that other natural gas that most people only associate with balloons. But it’s definitely not the joker.

The reality is that helium has seen an upward trend for years, after the United States government took a few decades to get out of its largely controlling position of the helium market. And now that the U.S. strategic helium reserve is no more, it’s an open market for an element that’s increasingly in demand for high tech applications.

Helium is used to cool the superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging. It’s used to pressurize the liquid fuel of rocket motors. And if you have a computer hard drive with more than 10 terabytes in capacity, it likely has helium inside to reduce aerodynamic friction for the spinning platters. Remember, data centres use mammoth numbers of hard drives.

There’s a catch to all this: because the helium molecule is so small, pretty much every vessel mankind has come up with to contain it will slowly, but inevitably, leak. The helium will seep right between the atoms of the steel body or any seals. Like an old, leaky pickup truck, it has to constantly be topped up over time, and thus creates a growing and continual market for more helium.

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Saskatchewan has been known to have helium for many decades. And we’ve had a small volume of production, off and on. But in 2016, Yurkowski released a paper on helium prospects in Saskatchewan, and that paper was very important to several of the helium exploration and production companies now gobbling up land, punching holes, or planning to do so.

The Saskatchewan Geological Survey (SGS) has been studying helium for decades, and Yurkowski has done most of that work in recent years, as part of the SGS, which is, in turn, part of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources.

On Nov. 18, three days after Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre announced this province’s Helium Action Plan, Yurkowski’s new paper was released, called Helium in Southern Saskatchewan: Geological Setting and Prospectivity, 2021.

Industry reaction

Asked how helpful the previous work the SGS has done in regard to their development, Helium Evolution CEO Greg Robb said by phone on Nov. 23, “Oh, very helpful. The second paper in particular, the one that just came out last week, I mean, it’s really helpful. And again, a lot of it is sort of broad brush, because of the amount of data that’s available. But the fact that they correlated it, and then put it out there for all of us to use, for us to do that individually would take an enormous amount of time, and I’m sure it did take her quite a bit of time.”

“It’s very useful. There’s all kinds of data in the government archives that’s been turned in, over the years from other exploration efforts that we’ve also been going through. So, there’s all kinds of maps, there’s papers and commentary on all kinds of things. There’s maps of a number of the formations, you know, the Precambrian, the Deadwood, the Souris River, the Duperow, and it’s all valuable and we’re using it all.”

Asked if the most recent paper made them rethink their work, or confirmed it, Robb said, “I guess a little bit of both. It was very useful. Very useful. There’s some areas that I wish I had gotten into a little bit earlier, and like you say, the staking rushes on, and the chips will fall where they may. But it confirmed more things to us than it changed. We think the best target is probably the Deadwood. The Souris River looks really good, too. Maybe the Winnipeg sands, at least as your move east.

“It confirmed a lot of things, and it gave us some other information where there were some gaps. We could assemble all that data over a period of time. But the fact that the government has done it is really going to accelerate the process for everybody, I think.

“I would expect the commentary on her paper from the industry is very, very favorable,” Robb said.

“The government resources are extremely valuable. And we’re using them we’re using it’s going to be it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to accelerate the whole process. And it’s going to it’s going to help us be successful.

Wes Siemens, president of Global Helium, said on Nov. 23, “I’ve spoken with her a number of times. Her original paper from 2016 was where I got started reviewing all about helium in Saskatchewan. And I think she’s fantastic.

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“She released a paper last week, which industry has been waiting probably one to two years for, and we’ve known that she’s been working on it. And, I think her work really took the framework for Saskatchewan’s geology, and helium, I think she really took that to the next level. And it was very helpful. And we reviewed it the second it came out, and we’re reviewing in more detail as we speak.”

When asked about the SGS’s contribution to helium exploration, Minister Eyre called it “an incredible jewel in the province.

“They do incredible work. They’ve been doing this work, in the helium sphere, since the 70s. Here in Saskatchewan, and it is an incredible service to the sector, and of course, the Ministry.”

The author speaks

Yurkowski spoke to Pipeline Online by phone from Regina on Nov. 26.

She explained that the study area was from the Alberta to Manitoba borders, and from the U.S. border to Township 25. It was an expansion of the 2016 report, which focused more on the southwest corner of the province. “Once you head up beyond Township 25, you start getting into a different sort of geological environment in southwest, and so when I did all of southern Saskatchewan, I extended it right across the board, from Manitoba to Alberta. And that was the idea, with the intent that we’re going to go further north as we go along. It’s not an indication of hey, this is where all the helium is. It’s just a matter of it was a logical cut off.”

The 2016 study went up to Township 25, but only as far east as Range 14, west of the 2nd Meridian.

In addition to an expansion, it was an update of activity that’s happened within the study area. North American Helium, for instance, has drilled numerous wells in southwest Saskatchewan, particularly in the Consul area. But Royal Helium’s drilling program started just this past January, and it’s still under the one-year confidentiality timeframe. Similarly, anything that North American has drilled which is under confidentiality was off-limits.

The cut-off for new data was December 2020, she said, noting it’s taken a while to get published.

Asked how long she’s been working on it, Yurkowski laughed and said, “I’ve been working on it forever.

“It was an outgrowth of the 2016 report, because what I noticed when I had finished the 2016 report was that there were definitely helium shows, or concentrations of elevated helium, in southeastern Saskatchewan, and I thought that was a very interesting story as well.”

She’s been working all along. “We had to collect the data, and the data is very time consuming, to go through all the well files and everything like that. So, it was time consuming that way.

“When most of the data was collected, I think it’s that probably about the last year or so writing this report, but that was part-time, because I was also doing my other duties as well.”

Those duties include managing the staff at Saskatchewan Subsurface Geological Laboratory, home to most of the core cut in southern Saskatchewan. She has a number of provincial geologists on her team, each specializing in a different area of sedimentary geology.


Yurkowski had students who helped along the way collecting the data, but she did the analysis.

As for the study’s parameters, and what she was looking for, Yurkowski said, “I knew there were elevated helium concentrations in the gas analysis in the oil and gas wells that we have. And some of them are quite high. So, for me, the question is, why? What is the geological reasoning for this? Can we figure this out? Or is it just all random? And, are there trends here? Can we predict something? Can we see something that maybe would provide more information for further exploration? Why is it happening?”

Radioactive decay

Helium is thought to come from the granitic Precambrian basement rocks, from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium over hundreds of millions of years. But Yurkowski’s study touched on other possible sources.

“We do have some shales. Shales naturally carry uranium and thorium and potassium. And it’s the uranium and thorium that the helium comes from. There has been some theories that have been posted, that have suggested that if you have the right conditions for shales, they can produce helium..

“And I’ve looked at both and I go, yeah, I think that there’s contributions from some of the older and deeper shales, but to me, in my mind, those shales are very finite, like there’s only so much thickness they have. So what’s the better source? And to me, the better source is the Precambrian basement, where it’s fractured.”

The Precambrian basement is kilometres thick, not 50 metres, like a sedimentary formation. It’s also fractured. And it’s been there a very long time – billions of years. She said, “That’s the other thing you got to remember, is that radioactive decay takes a very long time to accumulate economic amounts of helium.”

Natural fractures in the Precambrian basement provide a pathway for helium to get up into the overlying Phanerozoic (sedimentary) rocks, where it will start to migrate, provided the conditions are right, and collect under impermeable cap rock.

“It doesn’t necessarily come out as a gas. It may be dissolved in pore water. And it needs a couple of things for it to exsolve into gas.”

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She likened it to carbon dioxide dissolved in a bottle of pop.

Asked how this study will assist helium exploration in Saskatchewan, Yurkowski said, “I think it will expand the area of interest into southeast Saskatchewan. And hopefully, because the theory is there, and it’s good enough for people to start looking at and sort of say, okay, based on the theories that I’ve generated, can we look further, and can we find helium on the basis of what Melinda’s looked at?

“And I’ve looked at more than just the source rock, and the migration pathways, because I’m also looking at the fluids that are associated in the basin, like the hydrogeology.”

Hydrogeology is not her forte, but she recognizes it plays a role. Based on some of the mapping that fellow geologist Gavin Jensen and others have done, she said you can sort of pick up trends and patterns.

Yurkowski said it took a long time to get the paper together, with a lot of reading and trying to put things into context with the rocks of the province. It wasn’t just focusing on specific areas, or a specific section. “It was trying to incorporate all these ideas. Yeah, it was a bit of work.”

More to come

As more exploration takes place and more wells come off confidentiality, Yurkowski said, “As we’re moving forward, it will enhance the story. It will change some things, there’s no question about that. As soon as more information comes up, the story may change. And you learn, and you grow your knowledge, through the new information. So things will probably change, and we’ll probably look at things with new eyes and stuff like that, but for this part, most of this was written based on mostly more historical data.”

Certain building blocks from previous researchers still hold true, she said.

Asked what was her most significant conclusion, Yurkowski said, “I kind of really got excited about some of the trends that I was seeing. For example, the Mississippian, there was that linear trend. I was kind of excited to see that. And that was based on a fair number of gas analysis. And when you consider a lot of the more significant shows are deeper on down in the basement, in the deeper formations like the Deadwood, the Winnipeg, the Red River. And the fact that we can sort of see that trend in shallower stuff makes me go, okay, what kind of trends do we have further down where we have less drilling? And can we track those trends? So, I think it’s sort of enlightened me is that there are these trends that exist, and there should be a reason why.

Did anything surprise her?

Yurkowski said an elevated trend of helium along the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border that had a high nitrogen content could mean that it was basement-derived gases. If that’s the case, and there’s a linear trend, it could be a zone of local faulting.

What areas are most promising?

“Obviously, southwest Saskatchewan. There’s still a lot of areas for exploration. Again, southeastern Saskatchewan, along the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border. It’s hard for me to say, because there’s so many different sort of things at play there. But deeper is where you see a lot of elevated helium shows. And that is based on using the basement as your source.

“The thing you got to keep in mind is the helium molecule is about a quarter of the size of a methane molecule. So, what may necessarily be a really good trap for oil and gas may not be so for helium. So your best traps are found with really tight impermeable rocks such as silica cemented sediments. Evaporites are another really good seal.”

 

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This is Part 7 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