From the Garage Files: Steve Halabura is one of Saskatchewan’s leading geologists
Its hard to believe that there is such a thing as the “Northeast Saskatchewan Oilpatch” but in a strange way, there is such a place. Instead of Estevan, think Hudson Bay. Weyburn – think Arborfield. Heck, the area even has coal!
This is not normally an area familiar to the denizens of Saskatchewan’s more conventional “patch,” so Carol Heaslip threw together a map for me showing the geography and the “hot” zones. First, get yourself to Saskatoon, then progress on Highway 41 about 150 kilometres to the northeast to Melfort. From here, its about another hour and a half east to Hudson Bay, and along the route you will see the main geographic feature of the northeast – the Pasquia Hills.
This is a surprisingly rugged and remote part of the province. I’ve circumnavigated the hills but have never had the nerve to plunge deep into the heart of Pasquia country.
But this has not deterred others.
The first report of oily rock was made by William MacInnes in 1913, who reported on the occurrence of petroleum rock capable of yielding “Seven gallons of crude oil and 22.5 pounds of ammonium sulfate per ton.” Subsequent work by geologist S.C. Ells reported between 3.1 and 12.8 gallons of crude oil and between 1.7 to 8.7 pounds ammonium sulfate per ton from the same sequence of black shales, now identified as being of Cretaceous age. It seems (as is often the case) that entrepreneurs beat the scientists to this conclusion, as there may have been a cable tool well drilled on the north flank of the Hills as early as 1901.
Then, a big strike! Oil discovered out in the boondocks of Saskatchewan! Book a rig and let’s get drilling!
About a decade after Ell’s report, oil fever broke out in Regina and Yorkton, thanks to a report of black oil found in drillholes south of the Hudson Bay Junction, in an area variously known as “Kakwa” or “Pi Wei.” The driller was the Trail Blazer Oil and Gas Company of Regina, on a lease of 2,240 acres.
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Others active in the embryonic Saskatchewan oilpatch, such as Coal Gate Oils and the Petroleum Engineering Company, were also drilling, with various reports of flowing gas and free oil recovery. Wells were drilled, shares were sold, leases were traded, but in the end, the gas watered out and the oil was deemed no better than “the end product of heavy oil from which all the lighter products have evaporated,” much like the dreams of the early explorers.
Thirty years later: reports circulate of trucks and heavy equipment leaving drill sites deep in the Pasquia Hills, the truck wheels coated in oily mud. The explorer, Sun Oil, was tight-lipped; however, by now general knowledge attributed the target beds as being the same oil rocks as described by MacInnes and Ells, but now geologized to be the Second White Specks, or if you are from Manitoba, the Favel Formation. Sun’s drilling was along the north flank of the hills, with permits located deeper into the central part of the hills. Sun determined average yield of 8 gallons per ton over a thickness of 100 feet, leading to a calculation of 2.6 billion barrels of crude oil in place. Unfortunately, the technology was not yet available to economically exploit the discovery.
Interest in the oil shale potential revived in the early 2000s, with junior resource companies like Nordic Oil and Gas, Questerre, Goldnev, and Canshale, taking land and undertaking exploration work. Early results were substantial: Goldnev reported an “excellent high oil yield of 61 liters (13.4 Imperial gallons) per tonne of rock,” based on TOC (Total Organic Carbon) of 9.1 to 10 per cent. Free-flowing oil too: Nordic was on the hunt for oil out of Lower Paleozoic rocks (another story) and reported a significant oil zone within the Lower Paleozoic. Other companies focused on Second White Specks gas and deep Mannville sub-bituminous coal.
In 2016 geologists of the Saskatchewan Geological Survey provided yet another tantalizing play concept. In their re-examination of the historical drilling in the general Pasquia Hills region, they announced a startling conclusion: the oil shales contain rich concentrations of disseminated metals, including gold, silver, copper, lead, vanadium, and phosphate.
Here we are today: after 120 years, the “Northeast Patch” is still awaiting the first barrel of oil; however, we may be on the cusp of seeing one or more projects cross from being a field of dreams to seeing shovels digging. The “Northeast Patch” will look a bit different that the southeast, or other producing areas. It may also produce more than an artificially made light oil stream, but it may also produce as side streams gold, silver, and other metals.
Hudson Bay, Arborfield? You bet! It might be worthwhile to make another road trip out there before snow flies!
Steve Halabura is a professional geologist whose work over the years includes potash, oil, natural gas and helium. He can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-halabura-a715461b/
Editor’s note: Check out related pieces on oil shale:
And referenced in Halabura’s column, Questerre Energy.