Well, “apocalypse” might be a bit strong. Or a lot strong. But anyway.
The November 2013 issue of the APS News (published by the American Physical Society) has a bit more information about the recently passed Helium Stewardship Act.
The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 was signed into law on October 2, thereby authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to continue to sell helium from the reserve that it manages. The Federal Helium Reserve accounts for 40% of all the helium in the U.S., and about a third of the helium worldwide. Without the Stewardship Act legislation, the BLM would have had to stop selling helium from the reserve after September 30â€”which would have borked the world helium market owing to sudden severe scarcity.
The new law enables the BLM to keep selling helium until the reserve dwindles almost to zero. This is less than ideal, as it could mean that we still experience massive helium scarcity in the near-term future unless new sources are brought up to capacity before then. According to APS News, development of new helium extraction refineries is underway in Wyoming, Russia, Algeria, and Qatar. But it’s not clear, and might not be for years, how much of the global supply these refineries will produce. Furthermore, helium refinement has historically beeen notoriously unprofitable to the extent that there has been very little commercial interest in developing new extraction efforts.
However, the new legislation uses an auction process to set the price for sold helium. This means that the BLM will no longer be selling the helium at a fixed price far below the market price. And this is a significant improvement over the previous situation, because those artificially low prices encouraged excess consumption that harmed the supply. The government-subsidized supply also priced potential new suppliers out of the market.
Now the hope is that the price of helium provided via the Federal Helium Reserve will rise to a more reasonable level. So while prices are expected to rise, they shouldn’t rise extremely severely as would have happened had the BLM been forced to shut off the spigot. The hope is that higher prices will also encourage more exploration and development.
Another interesting bit in the APS News piece mentions that the new legislation includes language about R&D for membrane technologies to improve helium capture at the wellhead itself. (Most of the helium that gets extracted and stored usually appears as a contaminant in natural gas wells.) So that’s encouraging.
Still, the long-term future of the world’s helium supply remains unclear. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, once helium leaks into the atmosphere it’s essentially gone for good. And the helium we do have accumulated over billions of years of geologic time.