Ballooning Issue Floats Around Texas Panhandle

A global helium shortage has U.S. senators looking at new legislation to preserve the resources coming out of federal reserves near Amarillo.

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The severity of the global helium shortage (a “ballooning” issue that has sparked an abundance of bad puns) is “floating into view” for the United States–earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee devoted an entire committee hearing to go over the bipartisan Helium Stewardship Bill, which builds on ’90s legislation regarding federal helium reserves in the Panhandle region.

The Texas Tribune‘s Kate Galbraith reported last week that “roughly 30 percent of the helium supplied globally each year comes from a site 20 miles northwest of Amarillo.” The government established the Federal Helium Reserve in the area in the late 1920s. But in 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which compelled the government to sell off its reserves of the “relatively rare and nonrenewable gas” because the reserve was in debt, and helium “no longer seemed vital,” reported the Washington Post.

The law expires at the end of 2014, but by then the sell-off will not be complete. The new bill, sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, would push back the end date. According to a press release on the hearing, the bill will “allow for the continued repayment of the national debt by selling helium at fair market prices.”

Since the initial law passed, the reserves have been sold off at “bargain-bin prices,” fetching “about half of what it would on the open market,” according to the Washington Post. These depressed prices offered “little incentive to conserve, recycle or find new sources of helium.”

Chip Groat, a geology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Texas Tribune that “in a worst-case scenario, which is unlikely, the world could run out of helium in a century.”  Others seem to think the shortage may be more dire. Joseph Peterson, assistant field manager for helium resources at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told the Boston Herald that reserves in Texas “won’t last 10 years,” and worldwide, reserves might be depleted in a half century.

Who is hurting the most due to the shortage? As might be expected, those who sell party balloons. Jonathan Erwin, the vice president and general counsel of Ennis-based Wally’s Party Factory told the Texas Tribune that his company is “doing a lot more to conserve the helium than we did in the past.” Marty Fish, executive director of the International Balloon Association, told the Associated Press that this bill won’t fix the problems the shortage is currently causing in her industry. “Balloons that now sell for about a dollar could cost significantly more when private suppliers are selling the gas,” she said, adding that her industry is “considered less important” than other fields that use the natural resource.

Helium is used in scientific research, for space exploration, and even to perform M.R.I.s. Under the new bill, “a 15-year supply of helium will be set aside exclusively for Federal researchers to guarantee continuity of our research programs as we transition to purely private sources of helium,” according to the press release.

While the new law would pinch access to supplies in the short term, the hope is that private producers would begin to extract more helium. But don’t expect a helium boom in Texas: Groat told the Texas Tribune, “It’s unlikely that we can find helium in other parts of Texas. … Supplies will more likely come from the Middle East and other Western states.”

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