National Helium Reserve Faces Shutdown

Aug 20, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 4:13 pm

The National Helium Reserve is facing shutdown. The giant well of crude helium provides more than one-third of the world’s crude helium.

“It’s not a cave, it’s layers of rock, and the helium is stored in one layer of the rock,” Sam Burton, assistant field manager of helium operations at the Bureau of Land Management, told Here & Now.

The reserve isn’t just for nationally important party balloons. Helium is used in MRIs, computer chips and fiber-optic cable.

With a global shortage of helium that’s been dragging on for the past few years, the federal reserve has become more important.

The government has been storing helium since 1929, but since 1996 it has been trying to get out of the crude helium business.

If Congress doesn’t take action, the small facility in Amarillo, Texas, that runs the reserve could start winding down its operations in mid-September, and be shut down by early October.


  • Sam Burton, assistant field manager of helium operations for the Amarillo field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

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Wall Street Journal “Industry officials have dubbed it the ‘helium cliff,’ a play on the year-end ‘fiscal cliff’ deadline that Congress had to navigate last year to avoid broad tax increases. ‘The shortages we’re experiencing today will be much worse’ if the government program ended abruptly, said Walter Nelson, an executive at Air Products and Chemicals Inc.”

Washington Post “This looming funding cutoff has nothing to do with sequestration, the across-the-board set of reductions that have hit the rest of the federal government. But the BLM is taking lessons from Congress’ seeming inability to accomplish basic tasks, and worrying a lot about alternatives in the event that the Senate doesn’t pass its bill by the end of September.”

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Well, Meghna, when Congress comes back to Washington next month, there's going to be a lot of pressure to keep the government from shutting down, to pass immigration reform - and to keep the federal helium reserve from shutting down. Yes, we do have a federal helium reserve, if you can believe it; a giant well of crude helium. It provides more than a third of the world's helium, and it's not just for nationally important party balloons. Helium is actually used in a lot of things.

And with a global shortage of helium that's been dragging on since last winter, the federal reserve - the federal helium reserve that is - is even more important. The government has been storing helium since 1929, but since 1996, they've been trying to get out of the business and privatize it. So far, the private sector has not stepped up to the challenge. And now, if Congress does not take action, the facility in Amarillo, Texas, that runs the reserve could start winding down its operations as early as mid-September and be fully shut down by early October.

Sam Burton is assistant field manager of helium operations for the Amarillo field office of the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the reserve. He joins us from his office in Amarillo, Texas. And, Sam, why did the government decide in the first place to store helium? Why do we need a reserve?

SAM BURTON: There was no existing practical way to store large quantities of helium. And as a gas, gas reservoirs and pipelines are the most efficient way to transport it. So you wanted to have a place where you could safely store it without it leaking out. The Bush Dome Reservoir here in Amarillo, Texas, was one of multiple reservoirs tested and analyzed by the then Bureau of Mines to locate an appropriate place to store this gas. And by putting this gas in and over the many years of monitoring it, it's a very valuable geologic resource for the nation. So they needed to have a place to store it because it takes large quantities of this gas to be process economically.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about the uses of helium. We know that it is used in MRIs, in making computer chips. What else has it been used for over the years, and why was it so important for the government to have some?

BURTON: Early on, it was important as a defense mineral. They used it predominately for lifting bodies in blimps and balloons. But that changed very rapidly as we progressed into the space program where NASA was using it for space. The uses for helium just pretty much exploded at that time. We had so many technological advances that are actually fundamentally based on uses of helium - Heliarc welding for advanced aluminum airframes for aerospace. It's used in all kinds of rocket testing, vacuum testing, leak checking.

Since it's such a small molecule, you can find the smallest leaks and make sure that rocket engines don't blow up. It's used in medicine for all kinds of internal testing, for lung resolution for being able to actually see tumors and stuff in lung tissue. The list goes on and one. If it's technological, helium is there somewhere. Fiber optics, chips, computers, you said some of those things. Deep-sea diving mixes. The depths that can be reached with helium mixtures is far greater than the normal diving mixtures that divers use in the Navy.

HOBSON: So why is there a shortage right now of helium around the world?

BURTON: Right now, the supply end of it has been impacted. Either plants that produce large quantities of helium are not able to do it for maintenance reasons. There's political unrest in various parts of the world where some these helium facilities are located. In addition, we've got the lowest natural gas prices historically. And since helium is a byproduct of natural gas production, people don't produce helium for helium's sake. They produce helium as a byproduct of doing large quantities of natural gas production.

HOBSON: So why is the government preparing to shut down its reserve after all these years?

BURTON: There is a potential - I mean, there's a potential due to the Helium Act of 1996 has in its language that we would pay off the helium debt by 2015. Now, we're doing that a little sooner than we had originally put in the legislation. But by paying off this debt in October, there's a trigger language that says our revolving fund would go away.

Now, if the revolving fund goes away, then there's no appropriated money to operate. So that's really what's happening in October, is that we will pay off the helium debt, and this legislative language will come into effect.

HOBSON: So if the reserve is shut down in October - as it could be if Congress doesn't do anything - what is going to be the impact on ordinary consumers? If I want to go get an MRI, is that going to be more difficult?

BURTON: Certainly all of the technological applications that we mentioned earlier - MRIs, lasers, all the applications for chip manufacturing and high-tech products - everything that uses helium would be impacted by this shortage.

HOBSON: Do you think Congress is going to act and keep the reserve from shutting down in October?

BURTON: Well, I don't have a crystal ball. I mean, I don't - I can't see the future. I would - I'm pretty confident that there will be something that comes out of Congress by October. But again, I mean, I'm speculating, and I really wouldn't want to speculate.

HOBSON: Now you describe yourself as a helium geek. What does that mean beyond just sucking helium out of balloons for fun?


BURTON: Well, actually, I can't do that. I'm not permitted to do that. That would be a safety violation.

HOBSON: Really?

BURTON: But I'm constantly dealing with helium on a day-today basis, and that's why I guess I'm called the helium geek.

HOBSON: Sam Burton is assistant field manager of helium operations for the Bureau of Land Management. He joined us from Amarillo, Texas. Sam, thanks so much.

BURTON: Yeah. You're very welcome, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And just because I can't resist, Meghna...


HOBSON: ...I just wanted to let you know...


CHAKRABARTI: ...that coming up on HERE AND NOW, we're going to have new soul music from smooth voices like Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake.

And not Jeremy on helium.

HOBSON: Not for another few minutes. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.