Federal Helium Reserve faces uncertainty amid global shortage

  • The Federal Helium Reserve circa 1943

    New Mexico Bureau of Land Management

While browsing the Bureau of Land Management’s website, I found an odd piece of trivia. True or False: Inhaling helium causes your vocal cords to constrict, raising the pitch of your voice.

I was surprised. What was the agency in charge of overseeing the dry husks of the West's open spaces doing with a colorless, odorless gas used for medical equipment, computer manufacturing, and NASA's rockets? Turns out they’re doing a lot: The BLM manages the Texas panhandle’s Federal Helium Reserve, which supplies a third of the world's helium, and just last week permitted the first ever helium-only well, in eastern Utah.

That well, it turns out, tells a story about the fascinating economics of helium extraction. It’s a story that ranges from Cold War-era paranoia to fracking, from air ships to party balloons. And, most importantly, the well is an indicator that the West is becoming a bigger player in this obscure but important industry, and could be on the verge of a helium boom.

Helium, the second-smallest element, is created by radioactive decay deep within the earth's crust, where it percolates upward and is trapped in certain pockets of natural gas. It first became a coveted resource during World War I, when the federal government needed a reliable supply to keep their airships, critical for national security, afloat. Helium was a safer alternative to flammable hydrogen, and could prevent disasters like the Hindenburg crash. The government set up a facility near Amarillo, Texas, to extract and refine the helium from a deposit of natural gas where it existed in high concentrations. From 1925 until 1960, the facility, operated by the Bureau of Mines, was the only domestic helium producer.

In the 1950s, airships had fallen out of fashion, but demand for helium increased as engineers discovered new applications like arc welding. Soon, researchers began using the noble gas in low-temperature physics experiments considered critical during the Cold War. To protect the strategic resource, in 1960 the feds borrowed $300 million from the U.S. Treasury to create a massive helium stockpile (today's Federal Helium Reserve). The BoM built a spider-like pipeline system to transport crude helium from natural gas wells across the Panhandle region and inject it into the underground pocket. The Reserve was to pay back the loaned money -- the "helium debt" -- by 1985 with proceeds from selling the gas to NASA and the Department of Defense. But the government didn't buy as much helium as it had planned, so the deadline for repayment was extended to 1995.

In the meantime, the Berlin Wall fell, and it no longer made sense to maintain a government stockpile of a Cold War-era resource that could be sold to private companies, where demand was building. The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 ordered the BLM -- which took over the facility from the BoM as that agency was phased out in the '90s -- to sell the stockpile off to private refineries at a rate sufficient to pay down the helium debt, which had ballooned to $1.3 billion. The Reserve is on track to repay its debt as early as a few months from now, and once that happens it will close -- despite still having a significant helium stockpile underground.

But in the years since 1996, demand for helium has exploded, mostly due to its use in computer and other high-tech manufacturing. World-wide supply hasn’t kept up: Helium plants in other countries are having mechanical problems, and a big plant being constructed in southwest Wyoming is behind schedule. The global shortage has caused prices to quadruple since 2000and is causing helium users, ranging from physicists to party balloon dealers, to worry.

Now many in the industry are questioning the wisdom of leaving so much helium underground when the Reserve closes. Politicians are also skeptical of that plan and have proposed a bill to sell the remaining helium stockpile at higher prices, making the government a profit.

You might be wondering: If helium is found with natural gas, and the natural gas industry is booming, how can there be a shortage? It turns out that shale gas, where most of the new drilling is happening, contains virtually no helium. And the glut created by the boom has driven down natural gas prices so much that it's been uneconomical to tap the lower-grade, impure natural gas pockets that do contain helium. But rising helium prices and new technology are now providing incentives for companies to tap wells for helium alone.

Even if the Federal Helium Reserve changes course and continues to sell its stockpile, the West's pockets of helium-rich natural gas are set to become an important part of the global supply. "The majority of helium produced in the United States, in 20 years, will be coming from those Western areas," says Joe Peterson, assistant field manager for helium resources at BLM's Amarillo Field Office.

Another bit of BLM trivia asks: What does helium mean? The answer is "sun." But in terms of the West's future, it could mean new wells and refineries plying the earth for an unexpected noble gas.

Marshall Swearingen is an intern at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user cizauskas

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