While Saskatchewan-based Buffalo Potash Corp. is a new venture in the local mining sector, its roots date back more than 50 years to a big idea that never got a chance—until now.
In the 1960s, the potash rush was on in Saskatchewan with many companies on the hunt to produce “pink gold.” Potash mining got its start with U.S. companies (from New Mexico, to be exact) building the sprawling operations we still see today. “American potash miners came north to the province and mined the way they did down south, which meant underground ‘tunnel” ‘mines,” says Steve Halabura, Buffalo Potash Corp.’s CEO. “By the 1960s, there were new players thinking ‘is there a better way’ to mine potash.”
A big idea
Solution mining—which back then was using the oil and gas technology of the day to dissolve potash in the ground, bring it to the surface, crystallize it and process it—was the essence of the idea. Many oil and chemical companies joined the fray with this idea, and from it, the mine at Belle Plaine was born (along with its own patented technology). Belle Plaine’s early success squeezed out the others, including another technical success—Lynbar Mining.
The company came along a little after the others in 1968, and set up their test wells near Duval, Sask. Lo and behold, their solution mining idea—spearheaded by a scientist named Dr. Werner—was a success. However, the dream would end before it could truly begin. “Lynbar Mining, while organized in Canada, had deep ties from behind the Iron Curtain, Poland to be exact,” says Halabura. “Dr. Werner was an East German chemist, and Lynbar wanted to mine potash in Saskatchewan to send to Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia. The paranoia of the time about communists in Canada, and Lynbar’s own legal troubles would end the company and Dr. Werner’s technology.” The company departed Canada so fast that their wells and equipment still sit in a farmer’s field east of Duval.
The last chance
In the late 1990s, Dr. Werner was now an old man and he made one last attempt to see if his ideas for solution mining in potash could work. Werner reached out a well-known chemical engineer in the same field, who was working in Germany’s potash industry. Dr. Norbert Grüschow listened to Werner as he handed over his files for this last-ditch effort to see his work come to fruition. He left his research with Grüschow and headed back to his retirement home in Florida and would sadly pass away not long after.
A new hope
Dr. Werner’s dreams would not end with his passing. In 2006, Halabura met up with Grüschow and learned all about Werner’s work. “This ‘arcane’ science was intriguing,” says Halabura. “I had to learn more.” He and Grüschow set out to examine the work Werner did in the 1960s and apply the 21st-century oil and gas drilling technology to the idea, which allowed for the creation of a mining plane in high-grade potash seams.
A company is born
Buffalo Potash Corp. is now taking what Dr. Werner started so long ago in that field and making it a reality, through the creation of a mining plane. The company has two potash sites—one near Indian Head (called the Odessa Block) and the other near Bethune (called the Disley Block)—and will begin testing their new concept in solution potash mining, now named Horizontal Line Drive Selective Solution Mining (HLD) this summer. “We developed a new idea utilizing the newest oil and gas technology to create mining planes in the ground. This unique method allows for maximizing the surface area for dissolution and after three years of hard work received our permanent patent last August,” says Halabura. “We are also working on plans for a potash processing facility at Estevan to upgrade the raw potash to high grade Muriate of Potash (MOP) and into Sulfate of Potash (SOP), potassium nitrate, ammonia, urea and other advanced fertilizer blends, similar to the heavy oil upgrader in Lloydminster.”
As well, the company is working with Ocean Man First Nation to construct its mines. “We’re committed to working with the First Nations in Saskatchewan,” says Halabura. “Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territories have plentiful potash resources that by Treaty belong to Indigenous communities. We want Saskatchewan’s ‘pink gold’ to do for the province’s First Nations what ‘black gold’ did for Alberta’s.”
Halabura also notes the current climate for the potash industry, and what it means for the provincial economy. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions on Russian and Belarusian potash have created unprecedented opportunity for Saskatchewan potash,” he says. “The invasion and sanctions will disrupt the market for a generation, and we could see the province double its production in the next decade. Add on our reputation as the second-best mining jurisdiction on the planet, and it’s obvious how large the potential is.”
However, Halabura notes that the potash is needed today, not in five years. “I can’t see anyone bringing in a large new ‘tunnel’ mine in the next year or two, but I can see some of the smaller and more innovative players like Buffalo Potash getting product into trucks and railcars relatively soon.” Buffalo Potash hopes to produce its first truckload in anywhere from 18 to 24 months, with MOP available first and processed goods to follow.
To learn more about Buffalo Potash Corp. and its technology, visit buffalopotash.ca.
Buffalo Potash Corp.