Written By Brent Kraus, Ashley White, Kevin Myson and Katelyn Deyholos
Demand for helium has grown rapidly in recent years, which has spurred increased exploration and development activities in Canada. Helium is listed on the Government of Canada's critical minerals list, which identifies 31 minerals and metals considered "essential for the sustainable economic success of Canada and its trading partners."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the primary global suppliers of helium are the United States, Russia, Qatar and Algeria. However, the United States' production has significantly declined between 2010 and 2018, from 80 percent to 56 percent of global production, opening the door for Canada and other countries to play a more significant role in the industry.
Helium production is nothing new in Canada. The country has the fifth largest helium resource deposits in the world, is a trusted supplier and is the number two importer of helium into the United States, providing 20 percent of the United States' helium imports from 2018 to 2021. The Canada Energy Regulator has stated that helium demand could be partially met with Canadian-produced helium. The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan continue to take steps to meet global demand in helium and promote investment in helium production.
Recent Helium Developments in Alberta and Saskatchewan
As a significant supplier of Canada's natural gas, Alberta is well-positioned to become a key producer and supplier of helium. The Alberta government announced this year that it will soon add helium to its list of critical minerals to align with Canada's critical mineral list and to increase support for helium development.
Alberta's Emissions Reduction and Energy Development Plan positions critical metals, like helium, as a key component for the energy transition, given their use in wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles and energy storage cells. The province has further signaled helium development as a high growth potential for the province and an opportunity for Alberta to be a leader in emissions reduction, clean technology and sustainable resource development. According to the plan, the province is supporting the industry to develop technology to extract helium and will explore efforts to support Alberta's helium development in collaboration with the federal government.
Helium is in part regulated under the Alberta Petroleum and Natural Gas Tenure Regulation. The regulation governs the issuance and administration of Crown petroleum and natural gas mineral rights (including helium) and the obligations of lessees under licenses and leases. Helium royalties are regulated under the Natural Gas Royalty Regulation, 2009 and Natural Gas Royalty Regulation, 2017 (collectively, the Royalty Regulations).
The Royalty Regulations were amended, effective April 1, 2020, to add a new Schedule 6.1, which specifically addresses helium royalties in Alberta. Pursuant to these amendments, operators producing helium must submit monthly reports on production volumes and average selling prices of helium to the Department of Energy. The amendments also established a 4.25 percent royalty rate for helium in Alberta.
Alberta's new helium reporting requirements and the introduction of a royalty rate provide some certainty on the regulation of helium in the province and certain costs of production, which may invite greater investment in the industry.
Saskatchewan is a major player in the mineral industry as it has 23 of the 31 minerals listed on the Canadian critical minerals list. The province was Canada's largest helium producer in 2022 with a number of active drilling, purification facilities and liquefaction efforts.
Saskatchewan currently has the largest helium purification facility in Canada, which solidified the province as a key contributor to the global helium industry. Further, it is one of the few jurisdictions in the world that supports the drilling of dedicated helium wells, rather than as a byproduct of hydrocarbon production. Production from such dedicated wells results in less greenhouse gas emissions than other jurisdictions because such wells often contain non-greenhouse gases such as nitrogen.
In November 2021, the Government of Saskatchewan released the Helium Action Plan: From Exploration to Experts (HAP), which is a comprehensive strategy to support growth in the province's helium industry. The HAP outlines a number of areas of focus including scaling-up exploration activities, enhancing helium production, fostering innovation commercialization in the field, building-out Saskatchewan's helium purification and liquefaction capacity and establishing export infrastructure. According to the HAP, Saskatchewan is striving to produce 10 percent of the world's helium by 2030.
More recently, the province launched Securing the Future: Saskatchewan's Critical Minerals Strategy on March 27, 2023. The strategy outlines four critical mineral goals, including:
to increase Saskatchewan's share of Canadian mineral exploration spending to 15 percent by 2030;
to double the number of critical minerals being produced in Saskatchewan by 2030;
to grow Saskatchewan's production of potash, uranium and helium; and
to establish Saskatchewan as a rare Earth element hub.
Saskatchewan has had a well-established helium regulatory regime prior to many other competing jurisdictions. A number of acts and regulations govern helium exploration, development, production and end-of-life activities in Saskatchewan. Some of these include the Crown Minerals Act, The Oil and Gas Tenure Registry Regulations (OGTRR) and the Oil and Gas Conservation Act. Saskatchewan has had a royalty rate specific to helium since 1964. In line with Alberta, the current helium royalty rate in Saskatchewan is 4.25 percent.
The OGTRR governs helium and associated gases tenure. Permits and leases for helium may be obtained through Saskatchewan's Integrated Resource Information System, which is an online business system that supports the development and regulation of Saskatchewan's energy and resources industry. The permits grant exploration rights for helium and associated gases; but holders of such permits may not remove, produce or recover any helium until they are granted a lease. In 2021, Saskatchewan issued 126 permits and 72 leases for helium production.
Bennett Jones has the largest dedicated energy group in Canada and is active in all sectors of the energy industry. To discuss helium exploration and development opportunities in Alberta and Saskatchewan, please contact one of the authors.