Report highlights potential of Saskatchewan helium industry and need for liquefaction facility

By Matthew Liebenberg

A new report about the helium industry in Saskatchewan highlights its future benefit for the province and potentially also for southwest Saskatchewan.

The report Helium Liquefaction in Saskatchewan was prepared by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) for the Ministry of Energy and Resources.

A survey of stakeholders was carried out for the report and various aspects of the helium industry in the province were reviewed. A key focus of this report is to provide information about the feasibility and options for a helium liquefaction facility, which will add value to the provincial helium industry.

Cory Hughes, the assistant deputy minister of resource development in the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources, said the report was commissioned by the provincial government for a specific purpose.

“We commissioned the report to help assist industry in information on making investments in helium and specifically liquefaction facilities in the province,” he explained. “So we provided some guidelines on the information that we would be seeking in this type of report.”

Logistical, environmental and geographical aspects of liquefaction in Saskatchewan were reviewed during the preparation of this report.

Helium is included on the federal government’s list of minerals considered as critical for the future economic success of Canada. The Saskatchewan government’s 2020-2030 Growth Plan includes a commitment to support the development of the helium industry in the province.

The provincial government released a formal Helium Action Plan in November 2021. It sets a goal for Saskatchewan to produce 10 per cent of the world’s helium by 2030 and identifies the importance of building out helium purification and liquefaction capacity as a key component of sector growth.

“The goal of achieving 10 per cent of world production by 2030 really relies on liquefaction, because it is the liquefaction that allows us to export to international markets,” Hughes said. “I think people are very optimistic about the helium opportunity in Saskatchewan and we’ll continue to work with the industry to identify what else we need to do together to see the ultimate goals of the action plan in place.”

He felt the target of Saskatchewan to produce 10 per cent of the world’s helium by 2030 is attainable, because there is tremendous interest in helium and a lot of drilling.

“When we started designing the helium action plan, we were well under one per cent of world production,” he said. “We’re now around two per cent of world production.”

He noted that the SRC report refers to the existence of 11 producing wells in July 2022, but that has already increased to 18 producing wells.

“We have another 15 that have been drilled and will soon be producing,” he said. “We have additional wells being drilled. So we’re well on track. We anticipate significant growth each year, like year over year, and we’ll ultimately need the liquefaction to get to 10 per cent, but everything is on track. Our helium companies are very enthusiastic and putting a lot of money into the ground to not only identify additional resources but to begin production.”

Eight helium industry stakeholders were contacted for the survey that was done for the SRC report and responses were received from five of them. Those industry respondents indicated an interest in pursuing the assessment of helium liquefaction in Saskatchewan and they are also willing to invest.

The SRC report discusses the importance of a helium liquefaction plan to add value to the development of the industry in Saskatchewan. The liquefying process reduces the density of helium, which allow transportation over longer distances at a lower cost. Liquid helium has a higher value than in the gaseous form, and it can be used in various advanced technology sectors.

The report refers to the availability of electrical and road infrastructure as key aspects in the consideration of a location for a liquefaction plant. For example, a liquefaction facility will require slightly more than one per cent of the full 353 megawatts generating capacity of the Chinook Power Station near Swift Current. 

The weight of helium transport tractor-trailers will be a consideration in the location of a liquefaction facility. These trailers can be customized for local highway limits, but lighter trailers will mean less helium is transported per trip. Another issue in the selection of a site will be environmental considerations and regulatory approvals, which can be more challenging if the location is in an environmentally sensitive area.

The report indicated that the proximity of a liquefaction facility to current and future helium production areas will have to be considered. Helium is currently produced in southwest and south-central Saskatchewan. It should be located as closely as possible to primary roadways and a nearby source of skilled labour will also be a benefit.

The SRC report discusses several scenarios for a helium liquefaction facility in Saskatchewan. One option is to build a single large-scale facility to process helium from anywhere in the province. Another option is a single mid-size liquefier near Swift Current that will be capable of processing half of the province’s 2030 helium production goal.

A third option will be the development of a liquefaction hub consisting of two liquifiers. They can be built at different times and can be part of a dual train facility or located at different sites.

The report indicates that a single large plant will be more cost effective than multiple smaller ones, but there are several non-financial advantages to building two facilities, including reduced engineering cost from re-using the same design, knowledge gained from building the first plant, and the phased construction of these facilities based on market demand for helium.

Hughes said any decisions on the location and options for a liquefaction facility will be made by the companies involved in its construction and operation.

“The role of government in any investment is to ensure that all the pieces are in place to encourage that investment,” he mentioned, “We provide direct supports on helium. Our oil and gas processing investment incentive is available to helium. It’s for up to $75 million and so it’s 15 per cent of the investment up to $75 million. A helium liquefaction facility would qualify for that.”

He added that the provincial government will be flexible to look at any need for additional support as the helium industry grows and develop in Saskatchewan. The government will review this report and work with industry to ensure that everything is in place for a major investment in liquefaction.

The provincial government will also use the information provided in this report when it discusses federal funding for the helium industry with the Canadian government.

“There is a lot of federal programs and supports to develop critical minerals in Canada, but not all those programs are fully in place yet at the federal level,” he said. “We’ll be working closely with the federal government to identify where our industry can get support to grow this very important industry. Those discussions are ongoing and I anticipate there will be a lot more discussions with the federal government on how to take advantage of some of the programs that they’ve announced to support critical minerals.”