Medicine Hat hopes helium will lift its fortunes

Helium is lifting the hopes of officials in Medicine Hat, Alta., who are optimistic the city’s investment in the inert gas will fill some of the gap created by the downturn in the oil and gas sectors.

U.S. company plans to build helium liquefaction plant in Medicine Hat area

This Weil Group helium-processing plant is located just outside of Mankota, Sask. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Helium is lifting the hopes of officials in Medicine Hat, Alta., who are optimistic the city's investment in the gas will fill some of the economic gap left by the recent recession.

The city — which owns its own energy resources — is now exploring for helium, an inert gas used in technologies such as smartphones and MRIs. It's also used to inflate balloons.

The city recently drilled one well in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan and will test them in the coming weeks.

Brad Maynes, the city's general manager of natural gas and petroleum resources, says helium is in short supply and local workers already have some of the necessary know-how.

"We can utilize a lot of the same skills that we've learned for that conventional hydrocarbon exploration and apply it to a different business," he said.

"So we've talked a lot in Alberta about diversification and the need for it away from our hydrocarbon revenue streams. And helium, we believe, is a good step in that direction."

New York-based helium consultant Phil Kornbluth says that while it's not unlimited, there is a market.

"There is an opportunity," he said.

"There is a demand to replace the declining U.S. supply with sources that are in reasonable proximity to the U.S. market. And also that are not subject to geo-political risk. So there is an opportunity."

Virginia-based helium producer Weil Group recently announced it plans to build the first Canadian plant to liquefy helium in the Medicine Hat area.

While it hasn't said exactly where, the company says it wants the plant up and running by 2020.