While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, atmospheric leaks from earth into space make it relatively scare on earth.
The dwindling U.S. Federal Helium Reserve has scientists, corporations and government employees worried; so much so a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to deal with this growing problem.
Introduced by Senate Energy Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, The Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 amends current law to stop “a fire sale” of existing federal helium assets to repay a $1.3 billion debt to the U.S. Treasury.
Under current law, the Federal Helium Reserve is set to be sold by Jan. 1, 2015. The 2012 Stewardship Act would continue the sell-off beyond 2015 to ensure the remaining helium is managed and sold off responsibly until other domestic or international sources of helium can be discovered and brought to market.
The measure would also stimulate develop of private resources of helium by adopting market-based prices for Bureau of Land Management helium sales, and encouraging helium extraction from natural gas exploration and production.
In testimony this past week before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Moses Chan of the Natural Research Council’s Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserves said, “Ready access to affordable helium is critical to many sectors in academe, industry and government and the range of those uses is quite impressive, enabling research at the coldest of temperatures, weather monitoring, surveillance in areas of combat, and optical fiber production, among many other applications.”
NASA and the Department of Defense “use significant amounts of helium, as it is the only gas that can be used to purge and pressurize the tanks and propulsion systems for rockets fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen,” he added.
In his testimony, Chan noted the balance between domestic and foreign helium consumption “has shifted significantly in the past 15 years. “
Tom Raunch, GE Healthcare global sourcing manager, servicing and aftermarket solutions, told lawmakers if one third of the current global supply of helium is cut off by current U.S. law, it may result in a “potentially severe health care access issue.”
Helium is a critical element in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Raunch observed, stressing “it is most important for the patients who need access to MRI to diagnose strike, tumors and other diseases.”
Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing and supply chain with Air Products and Chemicals, said, “…With a few badly-needed tweaks, we believe that S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, is the solution to prevent chaos in the helium market.”
“Chances are you have heard little or nothing from constituents about helium over the past 15 years,” he observed. “That’s a good thing. With the enactment of S. 2374, chances are you still won’t hear anything, a sure sign that the market will continue to function efficiently and effectively as it has since the creation of the Federal Helium Reserve.”
Nelson estimated the global helium market is now in excess of 6 billion cubic feet per year with 3% to 5% growth forecast annually. Best estimates are that the U.S. has the greatest demand at 40%, followed by Asia with 26%, Europe at 22%, and the rest of the world at 12%. The market value of the worldwide crude helium expected to be produced by 2013 would be in excess of $500 million per year.
Timothy Spisak, deputy assistant director, minerals and realty management for the BLM, told the committee geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas make the natural gas in these areas some of the most helium-rich in the U.S.
He estimated the BLM had paid over $1.1 billion to the U.S. Treasury since 1995 toward the $1.3 billion helium debt. The agency anticipates full repayment of the debt next year.
Spisak says the bill “would create a set of phased authorities for the BLM’s management of the Helium Reserve, establishing a glide path from the sales mandated under federal law to a scenario where 3 billion scf [standard cubic feet] of helium would be reserved solely for federal users.