Dr. Ben Rostron carrying the first brine sample taken from a targeted lithium well. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

TORQUAY, EMERALD PARK – On Nov 9, 2021, Prairie Lithium invited the media to its facility in Emerald Park. It’s a nondescript building, coincidentally across the street from the Enbridge Mainline, which carries three per cent of the world’s daily oil production. There, Prairie Lithium president CEO Zach Maurer, along with then-Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre, announced positive results from the first targeted lithium well drilled in Saskatchewan.

Lithium is one of the key resources in the quest for energy transition, and specifically for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and greater electrification of the global economy. As the lightest metal on the periodic table, it is a key component in battery chemistries, especially in anything that needs to move. There is simply no substitute that can match its lightness – crucial for everything from cellular phones to electric pickup trucks.

While other companies have been active in land acquisition, Prairie Lithium has been leading the charge, out in the field, testing its technology, and, in late September of 2021, it was the first to put a drill bit to rock.

That first well was drilled a few kilometres northwest of Torquay, with swabbing and lab testing on site running through October. The company also gained access to a second well not too far away, and ran a swabbing and testing program there, too.

Testing the first lithium well, near Torquay. Independent Well Servicing of Estevan provided the service rig. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Pipeline Online was present at both the drilling and testing of the initial well, testing of the second well, and the announcement in Emerald Park in November, 2021.

If Prairie Lithium’s ambitions pan out, it could lead to a secondary revenue stream from oil production, extracted from what is otherwise one of the largest expenses of oil production – produced water. While the public may think oil wells produce just oil, those in the know realize that most wells, after a number of years, are producing up to 98 per cent, or higher, water. But in that produced water, in some areas, there may be dissolved lithium salts that can be extracted, refined and sold, providing an entirely new revenue stream for oil producers. And on Nov. 9, 2021 the day of the announcement of the first well, that lithium was going for US$29,000 a tonne. Back in 2013, when this writer first wrote about the Ministry of Energy and Resources investigating possibility of lithium extraction from oilfield brines, the price was US$6,000 per tonne. And by the time the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference rolled around in Regina in May, 2022, the price had soared to over US$65,000 a tonne.

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However, the idea of using produced water from oil wells over the past year has declined in favour of going straight for the highest concentration of lithium – the brines from the Duperow formation.

Prairie Lithium did their initial test on a Duperow water source well north of Kindersley. But by September, 2021, it had shifted gears, going right to what they think is the source of the highest concentrations of lithium.

A year ago, the company didn’t really want to say what formation it was pursuing. But since then, all the explorers in Saskatchewan’s lithium play have identified the Duperow as their target.

Prairie Lithium indeed drilled their first test well into the Duperow.

That first well, near Torquay, was the first well of its type in the province where the goal was not to produce oil, methane, or helium, or to inject CO2. Its purpose is to produce salty water.

Prairie Lithium president and CEO Zach Maurer speaking at the SIMSA Energy Forum in Regina last September. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Zach Maurer

Zach Maurer is the president and CEO of Prairie Lithium. “I incorporated the company in February, 2019. The first partner I brought on was Dr. Ian Ireland, our current chief technology officer.”

“He’s a PhD chemist. And it was him and I that really set out to co-develop the extraction technology itself. I focused more on the resource and the geology, and then he understood more of the chemistry and extraction technology.”

His mentor early on was Dr. Ben Rostron of Isobrine Solutions. Rostron has been part of the project, and was the one running the test samples when the swabbings came out of the well.

Rostron had been one of the key scientists monitoring the science behind the Aquistore project, part of the Boundary Dam Unit 3 Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project.

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A little under a year ago, Rostron retired as a professor from the University of Alberta Faculty of Science – Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, where he has been teaching geology since the fall of 1999. His focus was hydrogeology, which is particularly applicable to lithium brines. Rostron has long been president of Isobrine Solutions, an Edmonton-based geoscience company and analytical laboratory.

Maurer said, “I worked in the oil and gas industry in the area, from 2009 until, now, I guess, if you want to consider this oil and gas work.”

Zach Maurer, president, CEO and founder of Prairie Lithium, right, and the company’s geoscience manager, Chelsey Hillier, watching results during the drilling of the company’s first lithium well on Sept. 27, 2021. Both are geologists. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Got his degree just after oil crashed

After Maurer graduated high school, he moved to Calgary and got a geophysics diploma at SAIT.

“Throughout my university, I always came back in the summers, worked service rigs for a lot of the local companies, came down in the winters to fill in on weekends.

“And then I graduated with my geology degree from the U of R in 2016. And I think the price of oil in my last semester was like $28 a barrel,” he said with a laugh.

“I was always in the oil and gas industry. So I met a few wellsite geologists, and I would go sit with them and wash samples. Honestly, some days I would go roughneck on the service rigs, get back home and then run out to the drilling rig and I’d go wash samples for a couple hours for geologists.”

When he graduated with his geology degree, it was a tough time for the industry. Oil took a downturn at the end of 2014, and was in the gutter by 2016.

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Maurer said, “My last day as a roughneck on the service rigs was February 2015. So going in to my last year of university, summer jobs were pretty sparse. I graduated with my geology degree in 2016 and got a job as an environmental consultant for a company out Regina, worked with them for a year and then got a job for an environmental consulting company that had an office in Weyburn and all over.

“I got back into the oil and gas industry in late 2017, doing remediation, reclamation, DSAs, end of life stuff. I started to get into a little bit more of downhole abandonment stuff towards the end of my time there before I started to do this full time.”

Asked where he got the idea of looking at lithium brines, Maurer said, “When I was an environmental consultant, I was still always really passionate about the resource industry and what resources we’re going to need in the future and why.

Sampling the first targeted lithium well in Saskatchewan. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

“Lithium was one that kept topping the list, associated with this potential demand for batteries and EVs (electric vehicles) at the time. This was late 2016, early 2017. So I started to do some research into how lithium is mined, where it comes from; just understanding the resource at a better level. And I realized that a lot of lithium coming form salt water brines in South America. And I knew from my time in the oil and gas industry that we produced a ton of salt water brine as a byproduct of our oil and gas operations.

“I realized that there were some companies in Alberta that were looking for lithium in oilfield brines.”

“I figured, well, if they’re finding lithium in oilfield brines Alberta, I bet you there’s lithium in oilfield brines in Saskatchewan. So I started to do some more research into that. That led me to a couple of the papers that the Ministry (of Energy and Resources) had written on lithium in the late 90s, early 2000s. I compiled all of that research, and realized that there is really a lack of understanding of what the potentials of lithium are in Saskatchewan.

“I proposed a graduate study to the University of Regina in mid-2017, really aimed at understanding the origin and the evolution of lithium in these oilfield brines. The Williston Basin has so many different formations, and the lithium concentrations are fairly sporadic throughout the hydro stratigraphic column. And nobody knew why lithium was concentrated over here and not over here.

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“So, when I was an environmental consultant through 2017 and 2018, I spent all of my evenings and weekends working on this Master’s study through the U of R,” he said.

The masters was supervised by Dr. Osman Salad Hersi, associate professor of geology at the University of Regina.

Cracking the code

Maurer reached out to the Ministry of Energy and Resources, and told them what he was doing his masters on. One of the geologists he spoke to was Gavin Jensen, who has been working on lithium brines as far back as 2011.

“I worked on this master study, and I focused on the Frobisher and Bakken formation, understanding how the lithium got into that brine, and why it concentrated in certain areas and not others.

“The reason I chose the Frobisher and Bakken formations was because we had so many wells across the southeast of the province, so we had all these data points that we could access. And they were also completely different depositional environments. So the Bakken is a black deep marine shale, and the Frobisher is more carbonate and evaporite. So, I figured if I could crack the code and find that correlation between lithium in the Bakken and then lithium in the Frobisher, we should be able to draw the conclusion for everything in between as to how the lithium got there and why it concentrated.

Dr. Ben Roston collecting the first sample off the first lithium well. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

“So, I did figure that out in late 2018. I cracked the code on the hydrochemistry in the subsurface, and that is when I incorporated Prairie Lithium, to start to realize the potential commercial benefits of lithium brine.”

Asked where it’s coming from, Maurer demurred at the time, saying, “It’s still very proprietary, and it’s still very theoretical.”

The interview took place on Sept. 27, 2021, when they were running casing on the test well drilled just a few kilometres northwest of Torquay. No results were available at that time.

Maurer said, “This well is critical to the province in so many ways, to understanding this resource.

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“I don’t think anybody understands how important this single vertical well in the middle of nowhere Saskatchewan is to the potential of this industry. I came up with a theory, and it worked; chemically, it worked on paper. It made sense when we cross-referenced it with all the historic data, and then that’s when I realized, well, okay if this is how lithium works in the subsurface, then I can look at the public water chemistry data from all these other formations and figure out where lithium could potentially be the best and why.”

Deep Earth Energy Production’s (DEEP) first three geothermal well sites were drilled 19, 19 and 13 kilometres away, and DEEP had expressed interest in lithium development and purchased mineral rights to that effect. Asked if there was a correlation between what DEEP had found and what he was developing, Maurer said, “We’re actually in a formation that has zero oil production in the province right now. We’re not drilling as deep as DEEP, not even close to drilling that deep,” he said at that time.

A few weeks later, during the announcement of the test results, the minister had noted it was from the Duperow formation. And after that point, the Duperow was openly discussed.

“We picked this general area years ago, going through the masters and everything with that, to de-risk why lithium should be really good in this area, and understanding more about the subsurface.”

Since there’s no oil production in Saskatchewan in their targeted formation, there are very few data points to draw on.

 

Why Torquay?

Asked why the Torquay region, in particular, Maurer said, “When we look at all of the historic data, because the Williston Basin is massive in scale … we’ve got a point here, a point here. And there’s, in some cases, hundreds of kilometres between these data points, right? But if we can see a correlation at that scale, what would happen if we put one in the middle, and it matches that same correlation? We just de-risked a massive area.”

“And that’s why this well is so important, and the future of lithium in Saskatchewan, from this particular formation.”

The rig which drilled Prairie Lithium’s first test well was Panther Drilling Rig 2. It came to Prairie Lithium right after drilling DEEP’s Border-6 well, near where Long Creek crosses Highway 350. “We can take the same rig and the same crew, familiar with the geology in the area, and go down to the formation that we want to test,” Maurer explained.

A few weeks later, on Oct. 25, 2021, DEEP and Prairie Lithium announced a collaboration. Both had acquired substantial acreage in the region, but it was essentially a checkerboard between them. The collaboration means that Prairie Lithium will get the brine mineral rights for everything shallower than the Herald formation, and DEEP gets the rights for everything deeper than that. The area of mutual interest covered in the agreement covers 40 townships, running along the U.S. border. It covers an area from Bienfait to Lake Alma, and from the U.S. border to Macoun.

And as explained in Part 5, the company has since picked up three oil wells that were slated for abandonment, and will be using them to further delineate their resources.

Editor’s note: Prairie Lithium’s Dr. Ben Roston will be presenting at the 2022 Saskatchewan Geological Open House at the Saskatoon Delta Bessborough Hotel at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Registration is available at the door and there is no charge to attend. Click here for more information. And click here for the program in pdf form: SGOH2022-TechnicalProgram_Web (3)

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Lithium in SK Part 1: As the race for lithium takes off, Saskatchewan is seeing the dawn of a new industry

Lithium in SK, Part 2: Saskatchewan government launches lithium incentives

Lithium in SK, Part 3: Crown land sale reveals sixth entrant in Saskatchewan lithium exploration race