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The helium shortage gets real

It could affect Thanksgiving.

“We’ve secured helium to meet some of our parade needs, and we are working to secure more,” Kim Stoilis, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Festival Foundation, said in an email Wednesday. “We’re excited about this holiday tradition and our parade director assures me that all of our balloons will be flying high on Thanksgiving morning.”

But the full impact of the helium shortage on the parade remains unclear. Parade organizers declined to specify how much more helium is needed or whether the shortage would translate into fewer floats along this year’s parade route.

“Due to the severe shortage of helium and our continuing negotiations to procure the resource we’d rather not discuss specifics,” Stoilis stated in the email.


The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains much of the nation’s helium supply, held about 43 billion cubic feet (bcf) of helium in 1960, but today holds only 13 bcf because the nation’s supply has been privatized, said Joseph Peterson, assistant field manager of field resources at the bureau’s Amarillo office.

Under the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, the land management agency has been charged with selling off the remaining supply of helium on federal lands as private industry and overseas production plants take over the role of helium extraction, he said.

But today, Peterson said, the worldwide supply of helium has not kept pace with the demand.

“The past few years (the shortage) has been crucial because everyone wants the helium for their parades,” he said. “In the past there have been a couple of suppliers that were able to meet that demand. There is still some helium available but there may not be a lot of balloons in this year’s parades (nationwide).”

I wrote about this last year. It’s all fun and games until the parade floats start being affected.

We’re running out of helium

Am I the only one that finds this a little disturbing?

Deep beneath the dry, dusty ground outside this Panhandle city lies something lighter than air: helium.

But the supply of the gas that inflates balloons, cools MRI machines and detects leaks in NASA space shuttle fuel tanks isn’t infinite.
There’s only so much helium in the world, and some fear that a shortage is coming.

“Once it’s used up, it’s gone,” said Rasika Dias, professor and chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Texas at Arlington. “What we have is what we have.”

Still, nearly two dozen underground wells about 15 miles northwest of Amarillo work round the clock to retrieve helium and pump it to customers connected to a nearly 450-mile pipeline that stretches from the Panhandle through Oklahoma and to Kansas.

This site — thousands of acres where cows and antelope roam — is home to underground gas fields and the country’s only Federal Helium Reserve.

More than one-third of the world’s helium supply comes from this site, including nearly half of the U.S. supply.

But even helium officials in Amarillo say that after more than a half-century of steadily providing the world with helium, the facility’s production days are numbered.

“There is just a finite amount of helium out here,” said Leslie Theiss, field office manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Amarillo field office. “There’s only so much we can do.

“The clock is winding down on this place.”

That seems to be what the government wanted more than a decade ago, when Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, calling on reserve officials to sell off most of their helium by 2015. The latest projections show that all the helium won’t be sold on time, but it could be gone by 2020.

And then we’ll buy it from someplace else, like Russia, until all that runs out, too. It’s an interesting story, but other than the obvious effect on balloons and silly voices, it’s not clear what the implications of this are. Maybe it’s no big deal, I don’t know. But I still get nervous when I see headlines about the earth running out of things.