Drilling set to probe major Minnesota helium gas deposit

Photo: Pulsar Helium via X (Twitter)

More than a decade after a fluke discovery of helium while drilling for other minerals in northern Minnesota, a mining company plans to start excavations next month to confirm what may be the second-richest pocket of the increasingly strategic gas in North America. The Canadian mining company, Pulsar Helium, calls the gas pocket about 100 miles northwest of Duluth “one of the world’s highest-content helium occurrences, having been drilled and flowed 10.5% helium.”

The appraisal well, named Jetstream#1, is scheduled for February 2024, and will be drilled within approximately 20 metres of the LOD-6 discovery well that flowed 10.5% helium. The well is designed to penetrate deeper than the 542 metre discovery depth with the objectives of re-entering and evaluating the gas zone, and determining whether any additional deeper reservoirs are present. All permits are in place for the appraisal well, the rig contract signed, and all site works completed.

The so-called Topaz Project has not only taken northern Minnesota residents by surprise, but also state agencies. There’s no state regulatory process in place for extracting helium or other underground gasses in Minnesota, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it scheduled a meeting with Lake County officials to discuss whether local approvals apply and the agency is working with other state agencies to determine which existing rules and regulations are applicable to helium gas extraction.

“To date, we have determined that the Minnesota Department of Health has borehole safety regulations and groundwater protections established in law, but these are not specific to gas production wells,” the DNR said in a statement to the News Tribune on Monday. “Similarly, there are no specific requirements for DNR permits or mandatory environmental review categories that apply to Helium gas extraction at this time.

“The DNR is considering options for creating a regulatory structure for nonpetroleum gas extraction, including helium and green fuels such as hydrogen,” the DNR continued. “Through this effort, our goal would be to ensure that proper protections are in place for natural resources and human health, and also ensure that a fair royalty structure benefitting Minnesota schools and communities is in place for any proposed extraction of these gases from state lands.”

If follow-up excavation drills pan out, the mining operation would likely require a surprisingly small footprint, including a handful of bore holes and an on-site plant with 10-20 employees. The company says full-time excavation could begin 18 months following confirmation of the helium. The discovery of such a significant helium pocket comes at a critical time.

Helium is highly sought after for being very nonreactive and can be a lightweight gas or can take a liquid form at a temperature near absolute zero to cool equipment. It’s used in everything from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, semiconductor manufacturing, leak testing, air tanks for both medical patients and deep-sea divers, the aerospace and defense industries and, yes, birthday balloons.

But over the last 20 years, the U.S. has experienced repeated shortages of helium, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

It would be nice if the helium excavation paved the way for other strategic resources locked underground to be mined in northern Minnesota. But there’s always the risk the process of determining the state’s regulatory role could get in the way of progress again.