Over the past few years, I’ve written several blog posts about a looming worldwide shortage of helium. It started with a series of three posts explaining the physics, history, and legislation giving rise to the “peak helium” problem (here, here, and here). Since then I’ve followed the story and posted sporadic updates (here, here, here, and here).
Then of course I fell off the face of the earth and haven’t posted anything in quite a while. But the helium situation continues to evolve…
The Federal Helium Reserve was all over the news back in April. (Yes, I’ve been waiting 6 months to get around to writing this update. I’m that lazy.) The April 2013 issue of Physics Today contained a brief piece titled, “Gradual path proposed to empty helium reserve.” That same month, APS News (a publication of the American Physical Society, of which I am a member) ran a piece titled, “Congress Weighs Action to Ease Helium Crisis.”
At the end of April, my friend and fellow scribbler Terry England sent a link to this piece in the Washington Post: Congress finds it hard to let Federal Helium Program run out of gas. Now, I gotta tell ya, it makes me just a wee bit furious when I read pieces that mock the helium reserve as a boondoggle devised by backward-looking hayseeds because its original purpose was concerned with the construction of blimps and zeppelins. Yes, zeppelins are quaint. But the author of the Washington Post piece, one Mr. David A. Fahrenthold, tends to overlook or downplay the fact that helium has become absolutely indispensable to science*, medicine, and industry during the intervening 90 years. Because it isn’t 1925 any longer, dumbass. In fact, far from being some kind of unkillable zombie boondoggle (employing a whopping 52 people, apparently), as Mr. Fahrenthold depicts it, the Federal Helium Reserve is a national asset. Helium is more precious than ever.
(Why? The situation is laid out fairly exhaustively in the first three posts linked above. TL;DR: 1) Helium is a non-renewable resource, owing to the goddamned laws of physics. Anybody who tells you differently is either a moron, or a liar, or both. 2) A huge portion of the world’s known supply is held in the Federal Helium Reserve. 3) Helium is essential to the functioning of MRI machines, not to mention its vital role in basic scientific research, various industrial processes, and even national security applications.)
Deep breaths, Ian…
OK. Anyway, the gist of the Washington Post piece was that despite several legislative attempts to kill the Federal Helium Reserve Program over the years (dating back at least 3 decades), it somehow manages to survive time and again. And that it has once again narrowly escaped the axe because OH MAN THOSE CLOWNS IN CONGRESS LOVE THEIR OLD-TIMEY BLIMPS TOO MUCH AMIRITE?!? When actually what happened was that people finally realized that selling off (at ROCK BOTTOM PRICES! because EVERYTHING MUST GO!) or, hell, giving away the entire inventory of the reserve means squandering 35% of the world’s supply. As of April, both houses of Congress were drafting new legislation to alter the sell-off program (which was legislated in 1996, remember, and implemented in 2003) so that the helium is now sold at market price. (Previously, the 1996 legislation insisted the helium be sold off no matter what until the Bureau of Land Management recouped the $1.4 billion spent accumulating the helium in the first place.) So that’s a step in the right direction, as the original policy basically wrecked the world helium market.
But there’s another problem. That $1.4 billion dollars I mentioned? Well, the BLM broke even in Fiscal Year 2013, which ended on September 30. And the original legislation gave the BLM no mandate to continue selling helium from the reserve after October 7. Meaning it would no longer have authority to sell helium from the reserve it manages. A reserve which currently meets over one third of the global demand for helium and provides about 40% of the US supply. So turning off the spigot would create a sudden and massive “helium cliff” in the global supply.
A global supply that has been extremely volatile over the past few years, as I’ve noted in the blog posts linked above.
So, another purpose of the modified legislation is to allow continued sales of helium from the reserve after October 7, 2013. (Which, you may have noticed, was last week.***) The House of Representatives passed legislation to allow this on April 26. But here’s where the Washington Post article’s cynical insinuation that the Federal Helium Reserve had once again risen from the dead falls flat on its face: the Senate hadn’t yet enacted similar legislation at the time that article went to press. Meaning action on the helium reserve had stalled.
(A similar bill to extend helium operations at the reserve died in a Senate committee last year, and one of its sponsors has retired since then.)
Which was the point raised in an August Yahoo! News article that my friend and coworker Carl Gilbert brought to my attention: Looming Helium Shortage Raises Alarms. This article also links to a nice summary of the situation in Science magazine.
The House bill (H.R. 527: The Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act) would let sales continue for another year, after which point 60% or more of the helium would be sold via auctions held twice per year. (This apparently being intended as a remedy for the BLM selling helium at below-market prices.) Once the reserve falls to 85 billion liters (from roughly 370 billion liters at the end of FY 2013), sales would be limited to federal users, in order to keep a steady supply from the reserve for approximately another decade (or 15 years for 3 billion cubic feet, according to Physics Today). It’s not a great solutionâ€”I simply do not understand this stubborn fascination with dumping so much of the world’s supply of heliumâ€”but it’s a definite improvement. And the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on a substantially similar bill (S. 783: the Helium Stewardship Act) on May 7.
So. Plenty of time to avert this looming fustercluck before the end of the fiscal year, right?
Uh-huh. This is Congress we’re talking about here.
Which is why, on September 18, the American Physical Society sent an urgent letter to its membership, which you can read here. (There’s also an accompanying op-ed piece co-written by the President of the APS.) The good news is that the Senate voted to pass the bill the next day, September 19. I don’t know if the action from APS members had any effect on that. (Though APS members have been very active in advocating for better stewardship of the helium reserve.) H.R. 527: Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 was enacted after being signed into law on October 2, 2013.
The full title of this Act is as follows: To amend the Helium Act to complete the privatization of the Federal helium
reserve in a competitive market fashion that ensures stability in the
helium markets while protecting the interests of American taxpayers, and
for other purposes.
Definitely an improvement over the previous situation; nice to see that bit about “stability of the helium markets” in there. I still think we need to consider very carefully how quickly we want to deplete our helium reserves, but this has at least bought us some time. Notice that this legislation doesn’t really help to ameliorate current shortages; it merely stanches the worst of the hemhorrhaging. (Also, while the pricing mechanism in the enacted legislation does refer to sampling actual market prices, this mechanism is a lower priority than setting the sale price via auction. Which could lead to large swings in the market price of helium.)
ETA: It was getting pretty late when I posted this, so I neglected to point out the biggest problem of all with the new plan. The new legislation is designed to bring the Federal Helium Reserve to a “soft landing,” so to speak, within the next 10-15 years. If new helium extraction capacity isn’t up and running in a significant fashion relatively soon, we are likely to deplete our country’s entire reservoir of heliumâ€”and a major portion of the world’s supplyâ€”within the lifetimes of virtually everybody reading this (all four of us).
And helium extraction is a tricky business. Helium is extracted as contaminant from certain natural gas fields. (Note I’m talking about extraction here, not about the physical origin of the helium atoms themselves. I covered that here.) Thus, given the current boom in domestic natural gas production, one might think that the ongoing helium shortage is destined to be short-lived. But here’s the thing: only certain gas fields contain enough helium to make its extraction commercially/financially/energetically viable. The helium must be present at the level of 0.3% or more. And shale gas, which accounts for most of the increased production of natural gas in recent years? Contains essentially no helium at all. And any helium that is mingled with the shale gas fields leaks away through cracks in the surrounding rock after fracking occurs.
*Here’s one teensy example. Perhaps you’ve heard about the discovery of the Higgs boson last July, which just this week netted two people** the Nobel Prize in Physics this week? That work would have been utterly impossible without the superconducting magnets that line the Large Hadron Collider. And how are those magnets cooled? With liquid helium. Yep.
**Which is cool and all, but sort of odd, given the many hundreds of people who worked on the actual experiment that made the actual detections.
***Giving rise to no end of budget-showdown idiocy here in the U.S. at present. About which the less said the better my blood pressure.