Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Further exploration on the helium shortage

 Let’s talk helium. With any luck you’ve read this article about how local businesses, namely balloon supply stores and florists, are coping with the global helium shortage.

But how can helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, be disappearing? Well, the element itself is perfectly safe (more about that later). What is dwindling is the stored supply of the resource.

During World War I the United States became interested in developing defense technology using helium, specifically “buoyant aircrafts” or, as I like to call them, blimps with guns. Click here for a better description from the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The BLM oversees the operations of the Federal Helium Reserve. No, you read that right. There’s a reserve of government-owned helium. It’s sitting in the middle of the Texas panhandle and has pipelines snaking across Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming.

As mentioned above, the U.S. government was all over helium after WWI and right on up to the Cold War. Armed blimps seem like a great idea and, well, because helium is inert it doesn’t have the tendency to explode. Google “Hindenburg disaster” for reference.

Fast forward through the Cold War. It’s the 1990s, and while blimps are still totally cool the only place you really see them is circling football stadiums during games. Turns out stealth bomber airplanes are actually more effective than big ships of floating gas. Who knew?

So, in 1996 Congress decides the country has a large enough supply of helium and passes the Helium Privatization Act.

Joe Peterson, the assistant field manager for helium resources at the Amarillo office of the BLM, said Congress devised the 1996 Act to do three things: 1) to make sure there was a viable private industry to take over crude helium sales; 2) to get the federal government out of helium; and 3) to sell most of the government’s stockpiled crude helium.

The Federal Helium Reserve was built using a roughly $1.4 billion loan, which the government wanted to be paid. In 1996, Congress determined the price for the government’s crude helium that was necessary in order to repay the debt. From year to year that number would be adjusted for inflation.

But the market changed since 1996. That set price, while arguably viable in 1996, has been called “artificial” by some critics today. If the U.S. sells cheap crude helium, it isn’t really economically advantageous for a private company to work to extract crude helium and then refine it into a usable product on a large scale. Better to buy most of the already extracted crude helium and then begin the refining process.

Sale of federally owned crude helium has other restraints placed on it, but I’ll direct you here. This is the helium information review published by the U.S. Geological Survey in Jan. 2012. The survey is also run by BLM.

Back to the helium disappearing.  The stockpile of relatively cheap U.S. crude helium is set to be sold off by Jan. 2015, as per the 1996 legislation. Peterson said other sources of helium have been identified, but have yet to be tapped.

Helium is primarily gathered in the process of drilling for natural gas. To learn more about this process check out “Selling the Nation’s Helium Preserve,” a study and analysis by the Board on Physics and Astronomy published by the National Academies Press in 2010.

The BLM identifies many uses for helium. The same noble gas that inflates Tom the Turkey at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade also helped NASA send shuttles into space. See the full list here. You'll never look at a balloon the same way again.

Earlier this year, April 26 to be exact, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that aims to extend the federal government’s involvement in helium. Sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and John Barrasso (R-WY), the bill would change the pricing structure of the 1996 Act.

You can read about Senate Bill 2374, better known as the Helium Stewardship Act, here. The bill has been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. GovTrak, a web-based tool that tracks legislation, gives the bill a five percent chance of being enacted during this session of congress. Check out the bill’s GovTrak stats here.

If you’re interested you can watch the full committee hearing of S.B. 2374 and/or read the transcripts from the hearing. The video of the hearing starts around minute 17 of the 76 minute clip posed on the senate committee website.

Elizabeth Lundblad
Twitter: @NewsHLiz


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