High demand for helium sparks exploration

The helium market is volatile these days, largely because the U.S. government

(CNN) – What do party balloons, nuclear plants and medical scanners all have in common? They all need helium. Now, with the U.S. supplies of the gas dwindling, Canada is experiencing a helium exploration rush.

At a geology lab in Regina, core samples drilled about 60 years ago are getting a second look.

Geologist Melinda Yurkowski is on the hunt for helium. She’s mapped out where exploration companies are likely to find it, in southern Saskatchewan’s Precambrian basement, trapped rock that’s about 1.8-billion years old.

“Some of the percentages of helium are actually world class.” Yurkowski isn’t the only one interested in these old core samples. Over the past year, there’s been a flurry of requests for helium exploration permits in Saskatchewan.

Yurkowski said, “It’s actually quite busy right now. We’ve got a number of companies that are doing some exploration and have actually developed some wells in the southwestern portion of the province.”

Why the helium rush? As any party supply store owner will tell you, it’s pretty simple, the price is up. Erwin Taylor, President of Gayle’s Wholesale, said, “It’s gone up a hundred per cent since 2013-2014.”

The helium market is volatile these days, largely because the U.S. government has decided to sell off its stockpile of the gas. It built up a federal reserve in the 60’s when helium was considered a strategic military resource.

However, now it wants out of the business by 2021, and producers are looking north to fill the gap.

This well was drilled decades ago by an exploration company looking for natural gas, helium turned up instead. Now that helium is being tapped by an American company; it started up a processing plant earlier this year.

Harlan Highsaw used to work for an oil and gas company. Now, he fields jokes about whether he has to make sure the equipment at the helium plant doesn’t float away. “We get a lot of questions about helium in general, because as far as people know it’s basically for balloons. A lot of people don’t understand what else it’s used for…what it can be used for.”

Of course, helium isn’t just good for entertaining. It gives airships a lift, and helps deep sea divers breathe safely. It’s also used as a coolant in rocket engines, nuclear plants and MRI scanners.

Analysts expect demand for the commodity to grow. In Saskatchewan, companies are counting on it, as the Province tries to position itself as a global supplier of helium.