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US Helium Is Under Too Much Pressure

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Who could have thought the airship fad of the early 20th century would have yielded a potential modern helium crisis?
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the elemental gas problem reaching back to the 1920s, when a zealous US government began setting up its national helium program. Blimps, of course, were poised to never go out of style, and by the 1960s the Federal Helium Reserve -- built on 11,000 acres of helium rich soil spanning Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas -- was fully operational.  

The helium dream, however, did not pan out so well. In 1996, long after blimps were relegated to circling football stadiums, a Republican-led congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which demands the US reserves empty by 2014. At the time, the sale was intended to cover the $1.4 billion debt the federal government racked paying miners to extract the lighter-than-air gas.
Sounds easy enough: Privatize helium production in the United States, whose natural deposits far-outweigh the rest of the world's. Investors would flock to potential sources, creating jobs to explore and exploit the natural resource.
There's one small hiccup, which is buried back in the '96 bill. There was a slight miscalculation in formulating the cost of federal helium, which has resulted in bargain-basement prices. In 2011, it costs nearly $85 less per-thousand-cubic-foot than privately sourced and sold helium. With the Federal Helium Reserve providing a third of the world's helium, these "fire sale" prices, as Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) calls them, are causing serious problems.
Bingaman, along with Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), have presented a bill to Congress that would deflect the Helium Privatization Act, and keep the Federal Helium Reserve running past its current 2014 shut-down date. Helium would be sold at higher prices, stabilizing the national and international markets, while simultaneously driving private interest in helium mining. Currently, artificially depressed prices have yielded a lack of new developments, worsening an already severe shortage.
Pressure is being felt by local businesses.
Mark Falconer, the owner of the Minneapolis Oxygen Company, tells the CBS Minnesota News that he hasn't seen the market this bad in his 42-year career dealing the gas. His supplier is able to give him only 70% of the quantity he received last year. 
“We’re trying to stretch whatever product we can as far as we can and working with our customers to do so,” said Falconer. “At the same point and time we’re all turning away some business that’s been coming our way.” 
The situation is poised to get much worse. By some estimates, the Federal Helium Reserve's coffers are set to run dry as soon as 2013. That's right. A weighty portion of the planet's sourced helium will be locked away in a massive vault in the middle of the United States. Sounds like the premise of a James Bond movie, doesn't it?
And a shortage would amount to greater problems than deflated birthday balloons. Helium is a vital resource, necessary for keeping our country afloat (I couldn't help myself). For instance, MRI machines -- whose imaging capabilities aid doctors in diagnosing and treating the country’s most terrible diseases -- use liquid helium to cool their powerful magnets. In addition to presenting a potential disaster for US hospitals, the helium shortage will affect a number of vital scientific and industrial processes.
Bingaman underscored the importance of protecting the gas at a recent congressional hearing. "If Congress does not act," he said, "the helium program will disappear altogether in less than three years, leaving our hospitals, national labs, domestic manufacturers, and helium producers without an adequate supply.”

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