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Geology and undiscovered resource assessment of the potash-bearing, Middle Devonian (Givetian), Prairie Evaporite, Elk Point Basin, Canada and United States

September 14, 2023

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessed undiscovered potash resources in the Elk Point Basin in Canada and the United States as part of a global mineral resource assessment. The Elk Point Basin is a large, Middle Devonian (Givetian) intracratonic evaporite basin covering approximately 1,200,000 square kilometers (km2) and filled mainly with marine evaporite and minor clastic sedimentary rocks that contain stratabound potash-bearing salt. The potash-bearing salt is concentrated in four stratigraphic members (Patience Lake, Belle Plaine, White Bear, and Esterhazy) in the upper 100 meters (m) of the Prairie Evaporite and are separated by beds of halite (NaCl) that contain lesser—presently non-economic—amounts of sylvite (KCl) and carnallite (KMgCl3·6H2O). The principal ore-bearing salt contains mainly sylvite. Four permissive tracts were defined that permit the presence of undiscovered stratabound potash (both sylvite- and carnallite-bearing salt) using geological criteria.

Permissive tracts are defined by the spatial extent of each stratigraphic member that is at least 1 m thick, are less than 3 kilometers (km) from the surface, contain at least 4 percent equivalent potassium oxide (K2O), and contain the currently known resources. The permissive tracts include known potash deposits and potash occurrences as wells or mines not in production and show where undiscovered potash resources may be present. Well data are used to define the extent, thickness, average K2O equivalent grades, and volumes of each member. Data were supplied by the Saskatchewan Geological Survey or were obtained from published National Instrument (NI) 43-101 technical reports and other published reports, such as annual 10-K reports or news releases.

The Elk Point Basin is the world’s largest source of potash, producing 23.0 million metric tons (Mt) of potassium chloride (KCl) (the equivalent of about 14.4 Mt of K2O) in 2018. In terms of global importance, the Elk Point Basin may contain 40 to greater than 50 percent of the world’s potash resources. Since 1962, potash companies have mined more than 1.5 trillion metric tons of ore containing 605 Mt of KCl (the equivalent of about 380 Mt of K2O). The total value of the ore produced through 2018 is on the order of $70 trillion (CAD). Potash is currently produced from eight conventional and three underground solution mines at depths ranging from 900 m to nearly 1,800 m. Estimates of the amount of potash in the Elk Point Basin vary considerably and the data and methods used in those estimations are not well documented. Known potash resources are approximately 99 billion metric tons (Bt) of ore containing 22 Bt of K2O equivalent.

As a result of new mine openings and increased production capacity at existing mines, the total production capacity of mines in the Elk Point Basin has increased significantly (to about 32.8 Mt of KCl or 22.8 Mt of K2O equivalent per year). Additional production capacity of about 31 Mt of KCl (or 17 Mt of K2O equivalent) per year could be realized over the next decade if several current (as of 2019) exploration and development projects reach production status.

Stratabound potash-bearing salt of the Prairie Evaporite presently underlies a total area of about 188,000 km2 and has a total volume of about 2,690 cubic kilometers (km3). Post-depositional solution processes considerably modified the mineralogy and presence of the potash-bearing salt. These changes had a profound effect on the volume and grade of potash resources that remained in the Prairie Evaporite and are a major consideration of exploration and mining operations as well as in this assessment of undiscovered potash resources.

This USGS assessment includes the locations and possible amounts of undiscovered potash resources in the Prairie Evaporite. Volumes for each stratigraphic member were computed using member thicknesses and areal extent modified by actual, estimated geologic loss owing to salt dissolution and extraction ratios, as well as estimated distribution of carnallite and sylvite. Both sylvite- and carnallite-bearing salts were assessed for potash in this study. The assessment uses modern published grade and tonnage data. The amount of undiscovered potash is estimated by using Monte Carlo simulations to combine volume estimates of the potash-bearing members with probability distributions for average grade and bulk density.

Mean potash grades (expressed as percentage of K2O equivalent) calculated using drill core analyses are 17.76 for the Patience Lake Member, 15.98 for the Belle Plaine Member, 10.66 for the White Bear Member, and 15.30 for the Esterhazy Member. Geologic losses reported as extraction ratios during mining may range from 27.5 to 41.6 percent and are dependent on mining method and local geologic conditions. The assessment determined that mean estimated undiscovered K2O equivalent resources for the Patience Lake, Belle Plaine, White Bear, and Esterhazy Members are 340, 220, 34, and 190 Bt, respectively, and estimated a total mean of 790 Bt for the entire Prairie Evaporite above a depth of 3 km. The total mineralized rock tonnage is estimated to be about 5,000 Bt. Most of the assessed potash is located within Saskatchewan with lesser amounts in Alberta and Manitoba as well as Montana and North Dakota within the United States.

Although carnallite is mined for potash in Europe, it has historically been avoided in mining plans for potash-producing companies in Saskatchewan because of mining, processing, and grade considerations. Carnallite-rich salt is locally present in concentrations and volumes that could be a significant resource of magnesium chloride (MgCl2) obtained as a byproduct of processing the carnallite for potash. Previously estimated reserves (not NI 43-101 compliant) of mineralized material from 1955 to 2019 are 695 Mt at 22.1 percent MgCl2. The total amount of K2O equivalent as carnallite was estimated during this USGS assessment to be about 120 Bt (or 180 Bt KCl). With uncertainties in defining the areal extent of carnallite in each of the potash-bearing members, the amount of MgCl2 as carnallite in the Elk Point Basin could be approximately 180 Bt.

Publication Year 2023
Title Geology and undiscovered resource assessment of the potash-bearing, Middle Devonian (Givetian), Prairie Evaporite, Elk Point Basin, Canada and United States
DOI 10.3133/sir20105090CC
Authors Mark D. Cocker, Greta J. Orris, Pamela Dunlap, Chao Yang, James D. Bliss
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2010-5090
Index ID sir20105090CC
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center