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When it comes to economic development in the province, the Saskatchewan Geological Survey (SGS), which in 2018 is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its formation, helps provide the bedrock of information that mining and oil companies use to base their investment decisions.
SGS is responsible for investigating, compiling and maintaining information on the geology and mineral and energy resources in the province. The team consists of 40 people at full capacity who are spread over three work units: petroleum geology, minerals and northern geology, and data management.
“A quote I often use is that ‘it all starts with the rocks’,” said Chief Geologist Gary Delaney. “Quite simply, if you aren’t aware of what mineral or petroleum resources you have, where they are, and how you can extract them, then nothing else matters. We have a fairly solid geological framework established, but you never know what you’ll discover. Before diamonds were discovered in the province in the late ‘80s, no one was even aware that this mineral was present in Saskatchewan.”
In terms of geology, Saskatchewan can be divided into two main regions: the Precambrian Shield in the northern third of the province, and the Phanerozoic Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin which underlies the southern two thirds. Since forming in 1948, SGS has spent countless hours studying the geology of these regions and documenting its findings.
Every summer, the minerals and northern geology unit sends field crews to various areas in the Precambrian Shield. Flying on a floatplane, the team will land at a lake in the area of interest, set up a camp and begin their work. Delaney noted these are high tech investigations.
“Twenty years ago, the multitude of observations that were made in a typical days work were recorded manually in notebooks. Our field crews now record their observations electronically in sophisticated hand held devices that are linked to the global GPS system.”
There’s also a strong student component to these expeditions. SGS employs about 20 summer students who are majoring in geology at the province’s two universities.
“Students learn a lot in the classroom through their studies, but this gives them the opportunity to get out in the field and experience it,” Delaney said. “They get to spend their summer in a fully contained work site learning how to apply what they’ve learned. The students who have worked with us have gone onto various career paths. It’s a tremendous opportunity for them.”
The petroleum geology unit is based at the Subsurface Geological Laboratory in Regina. As Delaney explained, there are a lot of wonders to behold in the lab.
“We have a collection of almost 23,000 cores that have been drilled throughout the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. We like to think of this collection as a library and the cores are the books in the library,” Delaney said. “We keep going back and looking at the cores to learn more information.”
Outputs of this work includes maps and reports that describe the subsurface geological formations and stratigraphy of the southern part of the province, with an emphasis on the factors and environments that determine the occurrence and context of petroleum, natural gas and potash. Recent work has stimulated the exploration for, and the production of, helium.
Data management plays a key role in the operations of the SGS. “In addition to the various maps and reports we’ve prepared, we have literally millions of pieces of geoscience data we’re managing, including that collected from field and laboratory studies to that contained in technical reports submitted by industry under regulations.”
Several digital databases have been developed to more easily disseminate information. Most are available through the province’s award-winning interactive Mining and Petroleum GeoAtlas, which allows clients anywhere in the world to access information on Saskatchewan’s geology and minerals and petroleum resources.
Innovation is a hallmark of the SGS. An example is the work that is being done on building various 3D geological models of the whole province.
The SGS co-hosts two technical conferences that showcase its high-quality geoscience data, which mining and petroleum companies can, use to plan and undertake exploration programs in Saskatchewan. The first of these is the Geological Open House, held in early December in Saskatoon, at which results of work from the minerals and northern geology program are shared with industry clients. The second is the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference which is held biannually in Regina in the spring; the event involves focuses on research and development in the Williston Basin of Saskatchewan and North Dakota.
Having this vast body of data has proven to be valuable for Saskatchewan’s mining industry. In the Fraser Institute’s Survey of Mining Companies in 2017, Saskatchewan was named number two out of 91 jurisdictions in the world for mining investment attractiveness.
“We set the stage for our mineral and petroleum industries, because really it’s all about the geology,” Delaney said.
“The oil industry, for example, will visit our subsurface lab in advance of land sales. They will go through cores of the area and get a better understanding of the geological framework of the land they’re interested in.”
While the SGS focuses largely on the geology and mineral and petroleum resources of the province, Delaney noted recently that the SGS has been involved with various international geoscience cooperation activities, including with the China Geological Survey and the Geological Survey of South Australia.
“We signed a co-operation agreement with the Geological Survey of South Australia because they’re home to most of Australia’s uranium resources and there are similarities in the geological context of their deposits and ours,” Delaney said.
“This has been a win–win not only for us, but for some of our former summer students. A couple of them are actually in Adelaide [the state capital of South Australia] earning their PhDs through a co-op program. In the case of China, they were attracted by the work we’re doing with 3D mapping. We’ve moved beyond our provincial borders by sharing resources.”