The Federal Helium Reserve

In examining title to Federal lands in New Mexico, I came across the following clause contained in Federal oil and gas leases:

“…Extraction of Helium – Lessor reserves the option of extracting or having extracted helium from gas production in a manner specified and by means provided by lessor at no expense or loss to lessee or owner of the gas. Lessee must include in any contract of sale of gas the provisions of this section…”

This piqued my interest and got me wondering: what’s so special about helium? It turns out, quite a lot.

Helium is the second most common element in the universe, and is lighter than air, which puts it atop the noble gas group in the periodic table of the elements (symbol: He). It is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, and most importantly, it is the only element that will not freeze, is non-flammable and is very stable. Helium’s name is derived from the word helios, being the Greek personification of the sun. The speed of sound in helium is close to three times the speed of sound of air. This causes the high-pitched, squeaky voices we all associate with children’s birthday parties.

Although abundant throughout the universe, helium is scarce in our atmosphere as it is so light it literally flies away. Fortunately, there is a large amount of helium in underground formations. This is the result of fission (splitting apart), as uranium deposits often give off particles that can produce new atoms like helium. The helium is then trapped in underground formations, which prevents its escape into the atmosphere. Helium is most commonly produced from natural gas reservoirs. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have some of the most helium-rich natural gas fields in the world, with concentrations of 0.3% up to 2.7%.

If you’ve ever had LASIK surgery, you can thank helium for your restored vision as it is the source of the laser that makes the surgery possible. Helium is also used for rocket engine testing (NASA), as a cooling agent for thermographic cameras used by search and rescue teams, and as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors, among a myriad of other uses too numerous to list. It is also, of course, used to float balloons at birthday parties and as mentioned above, is the beloved source of squeaky-voiced renditions of the happy birthday song.

Helium is big business in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management reported $1.642 Billion in helium sales between 2005 and 2016, with over $115 million in sales in 2016 alone. The Federal Helium Reserve provides approximately 50% of the U. S. helium demand and 22% of the world’s helium demand.

The Federal Helium Reserve

Helium was first discovered and produced in Dexter, Kansas. Local drillers marveled at a gas field that produced gases that would not burn. Inspection revealed that the field contained almost 2% helium. Further experience with helium’s natural properties spurred interest in the gas for it’s military applications: being inert and buoyant, it is the perfect lifting gas for dirigibles and other military aircraft.

The Helium Act of 1925 declared the noble gas a critical war material, heavily regulated its production and outlawed its export. Several facilities for the refinement and production of helium were built near Amarillo, Texas, fed by natural gas from the Cliffside Field. World War II saw a huge surge in helium demand for reconnaissance aircraft and balloons, expanding the facility to five plants.

Congress later amended the Act of 1925 in the 1960s during the height of the cold war. At that time, helium demand again soared due to its use in rocket development and scientific experimentation. The amendments of the 1960s incentivized natural gas producers to separate helium from natural gas and sell it to the federal government, and established the Federal Helium Reserve in the Bush Dome near the Cliffside Field northwest of Amarillo, Texas, as a national depository of the gas. The Reserve is the only helium reserve in the world.

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