A U.S. government decision to get out of the helium business paired with rising prices for the commodity are bringing increased attention to Saskatchewan’s helium resource. And that may bode well for economic growth and diversification in the province, as well as foreign investment.

“There were 59 helium leases in Saskatchewan in 2016, none in 2015 and only three in 2014,” says Melinda Yurkowski, Assistant Chief Geologist for the Ministry of the Economy’s Saskatchewan Geological Survey.

“So interest here has bumped up tremendously.’’

Yurkowski says a lease allows a company to produce helium, while a permit allows for exploration only—18 helium permits were issued in 2016 and four in 2015. A lease can cover up to 12.25 sections of land and has a term of 21 years. She says the 59 leases recorded in Saskatchewan last year represent about a half dozen companies that are active in Saskatchewan’s helium play. Currently, two companies are producing helium in Saskatchewan: Virginia-based Weil Group Resources opened a US$10-million helium processing plant in the Mankota area of southwestern Saskatchewan in April 2016, while Canadian Helium Inc. started production north of Swift Current in June 2014.

High-grade helium was selling for about US$200 per thousand cubic feet in 2015, according to information published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Helium has more than doubled in price over the last five years and its annual global market is estimated to be US$6 billion.

The U.S. government began stockpiling helium in the 1960s when the lighter-than air gas was considered a strategic military resource. But that’s no longer the case, and the federal government there now says it intends to sell off the country’s remaining reserves by 2021, according to the USGS.

Helium is considered a rare element on Earth in spite of the fact it’s the second most abundant gas in the universe after hydrogen, which shares its lighter-than-air quality but, unlike helium, can explode. Uses for helium go well beyond party balloons, and demand for the commodity is growing. One of the primary reasons for its increasing value is its very low boiling point—the lowest of any element. That makes it useful as a liquid cooling agent for superconducting magnets like those used in MRIs. In the U.S., which still has the highest production and reserves of helium in the world, 32 per cent of production is used in cryogenic applications such as MRIs, according to the USGS. It’s also used to achieve ultra-clean manufacturing and assembly environments, which makes it an essential component in semiconductor and fibre optics manufacturing.

Energy companies drilling for oil and gas in southwestern Saskatchewan discovered helium in 1952 and continued to log such findings through the 1950s and ’60s, says Yurkowski. Helium was produced in the area north of Swift Current from 1963 to 1977, she adds.

Trace amounts of helium are often found in natural gas, but it’s also mined as a primary product. Yurkowski says some of the current interest and publicity surrounding Saskatchewan helium arises from a report she published in September that detailed these early findings. “I looked at the gas analyses from over 1,800 wells in southwestern Saskatchewan and tabulated the helium shows in them,” she says.

“The purpose of the report was to discuss the geological setting for these shows, to try to understand why we have helium in the province and to predict where we can look further to find more.” Helium permits and leases have been issued for land east of the study area as well as within it, she says, “so people are exploring on their own as well as using my report.”

Traditionally, the U.S. has been the largest market for helium; however, Yurkowski says that’s changing as the gas becomes a global commodity. “The electronic industry is growing exponentially, particularly in countries such as Japan, China and Korea where these products are being made. This is becoming more than a U.S. product.”

There’s no question helium development in Saskatchewan is a welcome addition to a provincial economy winded by low commodity prices, she says. But she admits she’s a little taken aback by all the attention her report is drawing. She expected it would be published and then it would sit in the stacks with no one paying any attention to it.

“But then the phone started ringing. It’s been really exciting.”