After driving nine miles, over four cattle guards, along a private road just northwest of Amarillo, I worried that I might have made a wrong turn as I saw an entry gate on the horizon bearing the name “Mack Dick Ranch.” But soon enough I came upon what could be mistaken for a standard methane gas plant, complete with a skunk-like odor.

The facility’s collection of Cold War–era stainless steel pipes and office buildings create a mood of drab utilitarianism, in muted tones of green, gray, and mustard yellow. I’d come here to see for myself where the federal government stores enough helium to fill about 13,000 Goodyear blimps—each big enough to carry ten tons of cargo—or more than 4 billion mylar party balloons.

Known as the Cliffside plant, it’s home to our nation’s only stockpile of helium, trapped in a massive subterranean formation of porous brown dolomite rock that’s topped by a thin, impermeable layer of salt. A half-mile underground, this natural vault, called the Bush Dome, is ideal for contending with the challenges of storing the gas, which has the smallest atoms of any element. That size makes it an escape artist; engineers often use it as a tracer gas for testing sealed containers. Building infrastructure that’s as well-suited for containing helium as the Bush Dome can be costly.

Along with 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas, about 6 billion cubic feet of helium rests safely in the Bush Dome until it’s needed for one of a host of purposes—by astronauts, party store employees, Border Patrol officers, divers, fire extinguisher manufacturers, nuclear engineers, quantum researchers, welders, or parade organizers, among many others. Helium doesn’t react with other elements, and it doesn’t combust, making it an essential tool in some of the most dangerous mechanical operations of modern life. “Accordingly, the U.S. has important economic and national security interests in ensuring a reliable supply of helium,” explains the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees Cliffside.

That “reliable supply” is far from guaranteed. Helium is so light that it’s not held by the earth’s gravitational pull; it escapes our atmosphere and into space if it’s not contained by rocks or human ingenuity. We have no means of artificially making it, and its natural production—a byproduct of the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium deep in the earth’s crust—requires hundreds of millions of years. We’re using it up at a considerably faster pace. With every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a little more is lost.

This week will bring a big change to the Cliffside plant, which accounts for between 20 and 30 percent of the nation’s helium, or about 9 percent of the world’s supply. Congress has decided the most responsible way to steward this finite asset is to sell the Bush Dome, the federally owned helium it holds, and most of the accompanying infrastructure.

An auction is scheduled to take place January 25, and it’s anybody’s guess who will take ownership. The sale is legislatively mandated, as a government cost-cutting measure, but opponents warn that it could have devastating consequences. Whatever happens, the Panhandle is bound to remain at the center of debates over this vital natural resource.

The federal government has stored helium in the Bush Dome since the sixties, when the gas was prioritized as a strategic asset during the Cold War. But in the nineties President Bill Clinton took aim at the national debt, and one of his proposals resulted in the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. The law required the Department of the Interior to sell nearly all of the 30 billion cubic feet of helium that was then in the reserve, by 2015.

The legislation included a disastrous detail. Instead of decreeing that the helium be sold at future market rates, the law pegged the price to increase alongside the general inflation rate (typically about 3 percent a year). Meanwhile, semiconductors—whose manufacture requires helium—proliferated, going into every smartphone, smart fridge, and new automobile in the world. With this and other helium-hogging technological advances, the demand for the gas skyrocketed, as did its price everywhere other than Cliffside.

So a handful of companies made big profits buying grossly undervalued helium from the government and reselling it. The amount of helium in the Bush Dome dwindled from about 30 billion cubic feet to 7.6 billion by April 2017. This cheaply available supply also discouraged companies from seeking new sources of the gas, according to Bo Sears, author of Helium: The Disappearing Element and president of Helix Exploration, a minerals exploration company. “It is this formula of pricing that has caused all of the shortages that we see today,” he told me.

Phil Kornbluth, who runs a helium-focused consulting firm and has been involved in the industry since 1983, adds that an unfortunate number of shutdowns of helium plants worldwide—for various reasons, such as sanctions against Russia because of its war in Ukraine—have exacerbated this shortage in recent years. The average price of grade-A helium was $310 per thousand cubic feet in 2022, compared to $160 a decade earlier.

Such steep cost increases have affected scientific research throughout the country. Greg Wylie understands this better than most. He manages a nuclear magnetic resonance lab at Texas A&M University, which uses helium to cool massive magnets. Until 2020, when a recycling system was installed, researchers there would sometimes go weeks without access to the element, awaiting a new supply. “Liquid helium was a dollar or two a liter whenever I started as a manager, about eighteen years ago,” he says. “Now I’ve heard of people paying up to sixty, seventy dollars a liter.”

The federal Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 fixed the big pricing mistake in the 1996 legislation, allowing the helium to be sold to the highest bidder, at however much the market will bear. And it mandated the eventual sale of all of the government’s gas in Bush Dome. Each year since 2015, a percentage has been put up for auction.

The sale of the last of the reserve and the government-owned infrastructure at Cliffside was supposed to have happened last November, but after a late discovery that there is more natural gas in the Bush Dome than earlier thought, the Bureau of Land Management moved the auction to January 25 to give bidders time to raise their offers, which are expected to be in the range of about $1 billion. Kornbluth anticipates the price will run lower. “The value of the crude helium will be heavily discounted because it will take a long time to get it out of the ground to monetize it, and there is risk that you might not be able to get it out of the ground,” he said. “I expect a few lowball bids.”

Many industry players would prefer the sale be delayed even further. Last October the Semiconductor Industry Association, the Compressed Gas Association, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Advanced Medical Technology Association, and the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance sent a joint letter to the White House calling for a postponement “until the transfer of the facility can be done in a manner that maintains the safety of the facility and the reliability of the helium supply chain.” As late as last week, they were still speaking out against the sale.

The letter calls out problems at Cliffside with corroded pipes, flooded wells, and a massive list of permits and regulations that the government has not had to adhere to but which any new private ownership will need to address. BLM had to shut down the plant for several months in 2022 after OSHA found 21 instances of unsafe working conditions. “It’s not even fit to be sold at this point,” says Richard Gottwald, president and CEO of the Compressed Gas Association. He advocates an auction date in late 2026.

An industrial gas supplier called Air Products owns a large percentage of the two billion cubic feet of helium that the government has sold since 2015, which remains stored in the Bush Dome along with about four billion cubic feet that’s still federally owned. In September, Air Products filed a lawsuit looking to stop the auction. In the lawsuit, the company argued that the government “has failed to adopt reasonable safeguards to ensure that the next owner has the financial, technical, and operational experience, as well as the necessary property rights, to safely provide a stable helium supply to the many who depend on it, such as Plaintiffs and their customers.”

But a federal judge ruled in November that the potential damage to Air Products’ business was too speculative to justify delaying the sale. When I asked a government spokesman about whether the sale should proceed despite industry opposition, she sent me only the written dismissal order of the Air Products lawsuit in response.

Whoever buys the federal helium reserve and the Cliffside plant will be purchasing a logistical headache. Most likely, the new owner will be one of what Sears calls “the majors”—Air Products, Linde, Kinder-Morgan, and Messer (although probably not Air Products, considering its lawsuit). Some parties think that Messer should not be allowed to bid, since the Bureau of Land Management has contracted the company to help run the plant since 2022, and it therefore has access to more information than other buyers might.

A buyer from outside the industry could emerge but would face a steep learning curve and a potentially uncomfortable relationship with the majors, whose cooperation would be necessary for operating the plant. “Usually smart people with a billion dollars to spend are not going to go in there blindly,” Sears says.

These days, the mood of exhausted resignation among the last of the local government workers at the Cliffside plant is barely contained by awkward, bureaucratic language. No one uses the word “sale” to describe the upcoming auction; instead, they refer to the event as the “conveyance,” as though it’s yet another geologic era shaping the Bush Dome instead of a political choice.

Gear and tools that will be left for the future owners have already been labeled with signs reading “Abandon in Place.” Only a skeleton crew remains, down from 55 employees in 2010. One of the employees I spoke to had worked at Cliffside for eight years. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and wore sunglasses that both protect against the relentless sunshine and fulfill the safety requirement that he don eye protection on site. He has two sons, one in the Air Force and another who lives a mile away from his current home in Amarillo. He’ll earn his pension in twelve years, at age 57, so he intends to pursue government employment even after the U.S. gets out of the helium business.

His favorite part of the facility at Cliffside is a weather vane depicting a rocket ship on top of a model of a helium atom painted red and blue. He told me that it was probably welded during the Cold War, like most of the other equipment at the plant. I joked that he should take it as a souvenir. He shook his head and explained that it would be carefully cataloged and probably put in a museum. Like the federal helium reserve itself, the sculpture will soon be a relic from a different time.