Exploration for oil and gas in Saskatchewan was initiated in 1888 with the spudding of a 472-meter (1,548.5 feet) well near the settlement of Belle Plaine some 32 kilometers (20 miles) west of Regina.
Drilling was sporadic until the early years of World War II, when the need for secure sources of oil brought about a systematic search for hydrocarbons. Paramount in this search were Imperial Oil and its subsidiary, Northwest Company (later known as Norcanols Oil and Gas), both of which obtained large exploration reservations from the government of the day.
Harry Edmunds, a professor in the geology department at the University of Saskatchewan at this time, encouraged the government to acquire and store all subsurface well information, including cores and drill cuttings. The 1941 version of the Saskatchewan Well Drilling Act had clauses pertaining to governmental acquisition of geological materials and specimens, but did not specifically refer to submission of cores.
Edmund’s urgings, however, evidently did not go unheeded, as the cores and drill cuttings from the first well drilled on the Norcanols reservation in 1942, Radville No. 1, were acquired and stored at the University of Saskatchewan. These and all subsequently obtained cores and drill cuttings were initially stored on the campus in a shed next to the engineering building, and eventually all were later moved to the basement of a Saskatchewan Government Liquor Board Store in downtown Saskatoon.
Laurence Vigrass was among the first graduate students at the University of Saskatchewan to do a master’s thesis based on cores and drill cuttings stored at the liquor store. He indicated that the custodian let clients in – but after entry clients had to search for and lay out their own cores.
With these initial steps the province appears to have been the first political jurisdiction in Canada – and possibly in North America – to mandate the preservation of and public access to drill cores and cuttings.
Discoveries Lead to Changes
Core storage in Regina began after discoveries of hydrocarbons in Mississippian strata in the Canadian portion of the Williston Basin in southeastern Saskatchewan, and in Mesozoic strata in the province’s southwest corner.
The first location in Regina to be used for storage was an abandoned chicken processing plant located on the corner of Winnipeg Street and 8th Avenue.
The following quotes regarding this facility are from the recently deceased J.G.C.M. Fuller, the 2012 Saskatchewan Geological Society Geoscience Honor Roll inductee, who arrived in Saskatchewan in 1954 as a raw recruit from a doctorate program at Cambridge to begin employment with the Department of Mineral Resources:
“On the ground floor of that building and in adjacent sheds, all the cores and cuttings-samples from Saskatchewan wells were stored. The sheds were dark and unheated, requiring in winter a high level of determination and fortitude to undertake any meaningful study, but worse was to come. As the interior storage space became exhausted, core boxes were stacked outside, in the open. It was a management policy barely tolerable for hard-rock mineral cores, but disastrous for halite and potash. When there was a rainfall, the weeds in that part of the yard died.
“ … I was given a dun-colored cotton coat, and a small partitioned space upstairs in the building to serve as my recovery room after work in the core-sheds.”
Construction and Expansion
The influx of cores became so great following the 1953 discovery of southeast Saskatchewan’s Mississippian subcrop play that the capacity of the converted chicken plant was stretched beyond its limits, and in 1957 construction started on a new Saskatchewan Subsurface Geological Laboratory (SSGL) and core storage warehouse.
This facility was opened in April 1958.
Initially the lab had a 45,280-square-foot unheated core storage warehouse and 11,369 square feet of office space that housed a laboratory and core and drill cutting examination space.
Six additions to the warehouse, the most recent in 2012, have increased its size to 98,879 square feet. There presently are about 590,748 meters (1,938,126 feet) of core stored at this facility and over 4.8 million vials of drill cuttings from close to 35,000 wells, all from the province.
Not all of the cores stored at the SSGL were acquired through hydrocarbon-related drilling:
- Currently there are 10,477 meters (34,373 feet) of core from 18 potash shaft pilot holes.
- Cores from each shaft hole include most of the sedimentary succession above the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite, and over 550 cores from potash test wells.
- In addition, recent drilling on a Cretaceous coal prospect has resulted in acquisition of approximately 8,500 meters (27,887 feet) of core.
Other non-hydrocarbon related cores stored at the Subsurface Lab include diamond drill cores from drill holes that had to penetrate a thin cover of Phanerozoic rocks in north central Saskatchewan to access potential mineral deposits in the Precambrian basement. In addition, there are a number of stratigraphic diamond drill cores taken from northern Saskatchewan’s Proterozoic Athabasca Basin for uranium exploration, as well as cores from wells drilled to determine the characteristics of Cretaceous diamondiferous kimberlites in the province’s central part.
Making an Impact
The core inventory at the SSGL has been a significant source of scientific information to industry, government and academic geoscientists and engineers, and has been key in the responsible development of Saskatchewan’s petroleum sector, which ranks second in Canada in terms of the value of oil production.
Industry is charged a nominal fee to examine core. A no-charge policy for professorial and student research projects has resulted in approximately 60 undergraduate, master’s and doctorate core- and drill cutting-related theses.
Saskatchewan government petroleum geologists who are based at the SSGL have made good use of the core storage facility and have published numerous government reports on various aspects of the geology of the subsurface rocks.
The SSGL also plays an important role in educating the public about Saskatchewan’s geology and petroleum resources through outreach and education tours to elementary and high school students. Outcrop and core samples are utilized to help explain geological concepts and the geology of Saskatchewan to the touring groups and the students are offered an opportunity to view the warehouse facility.
In addition, touring students are shown an array of drilling bits and are given a short account on drilling processes and procedures. As part of the most recent expansion a 3-D theater was added to the SSGL in support of a major 3-D modeling project of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin and other geological terranes in Saskatchewan being undertaken by the Saskatchewan Geological Survey.