Although Helium is one of the most common elements in the universe it is a rare gas on earth. It exists in the atmosphere in such small quantities (less than five parts per million) that recovering it from the air is uneconomical. Helium is produced as a by-product of the refining of natural gas, which is carried out on a commercial scale in the USA and Poland. In these areas natural gas contains a relatively high concentration of Helium which has accumulated as a result of radioactive decay of heavy elements within the earth’s crust. Helium is supplied to distribution centres throughout the world in liquid form in large cryogenic containers. The Helium is filled into liquid containers, gas cylinders and cylinder packs as necessary.

History of Helium Production

Government involvement in helium conservation dates to the Helium Act of 1925 which authorized the Bureau of Mines to build and operate a large-scale helium extraction and purification plant. From 1929 until 1960 the federal government was the only domestic helium producer. In 1960, Congress amended the Helium Act to provide incentives to natural gas producers for stripping natural gas of its helium, for purchase of the separated helium by the government, and for its long-term storage. With over 960 million cubic meters (34.6 billion cubic feet) of helium in government storage and a large private helium recovery industry, questions arise as to the need for either the federal helium extraction program or the federally maintained helium stockpile. In a move which would take the federal government out of the helium business, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act (H.R. 873) as part of the Seven-Year Balanced Budget Reconciliation Act of 1995 (H.R. 2491). Although the measure died when the President vetoed the Budget Act on December 6, 1995, the Administration has made a goal the privatization of the federal helium program. On April 30, 1996, the House suspended the rules and passed H.R. 3008, the Helium Privatization Act as agreed to in the House-Senate conference on the Budget Act. Subsequently, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amended the bill to provide for the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to dispose of the helium reserve. On September 26, 1996, with limited time remaining for the 104th Congress, the House again suspended the rules and passed H.R. 4168, a new bill containing the Senate Committee language. This would avoid the need for a conference if the Senate would also pass the same bill. The Senate did so on September 28, 1996. This report reviews the origin and development of the Federal Helium Program; analyzes the choices that Congress faced in terminating the program; reviews the issues that the National Academy of Sciences will study, and summarizes H.R. 4168. Federal interest in helium began with World War I when its military value as an inert lifting gas was recognized by the Army and Navy. The Bureau of Mines’ involvement in the Helium Program dates back to passage of the Helium Act of 1925 under which the Bureau was authorized to build and operate a large-scale helium extraction and purification plant. This plant went into operation in 1929 at Amarillo, Texas. Demand increased significantly during World War II and four more plants were built, including the Exell, Texas plant, which is now the Bureau’s only operating plant. Private helium operations followed passage of the Helium Act Amendments of 1960 (P.L. 86-777) which authorized the Secretary of the Interior (authority delegated to the Bureau of Mines) to enter into long-term contracts for the acquisition and conservation of helium to be stored in the Cliffside Reservoir near Amarillo, Texas. The Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to operate and maintain helium production and purification plants and related storage, transmission, and shipping facilities. The Act also authorized the Secretary to borrow from the Treasury up to $47.5 million per year, at compound interest, to purchase helium in lieu of direct appropriations. The 1960 Act required the Secretary of the Interior to determine the net worth of assets of the Helium Program acquired prior to 1960 ($40 million) and establish this as debt in the Helium Fund to which subsequent borrowing would be added. The Act stipulated that the Bureau of Mines set prices that would cover all of the program’s costs, including debt and interest, and provided a period of 25 years to pay back the debt (with a 10-year extension to 1995). In addition, federal agencies and contractors were required to buy helium from the Bureau of Mines. As a result of the 1960 Act, four private natural gas producing companies built five helium extraction facilities and entered into 22-year contracts with the Bureau of Mines. Because demand for helium did not meet the forecast of the late 1950s, the Bureau of Mines began to borrow from the Treasury as authorized to pay for helium purchases. In 1973, the government had 970 million cubic meters (35 billion cubic feet) of helium in storage, which was far in excess of projected government needs, and canceled the purchase contracts. This led to several years of litigation during which most private helium extraction plants remained idle.

Where is Helium Produced

World helium resources exclusive of the United States are estimated at 18 billion cubic meters (650 billion cubic feet) of which 9.2 billion cubic meters are in the former Soviet Union, mostly in Russia. Other helium resources are located in Algeria, 2.1 billion cubic meters; Canada, 2.1 billion cubic meters; China, 1.1 billion cubic meters; Poland, 0.8 billion cubic meters; and the Netherlands, 0.7 billion cubic meters. The helium resources of the United States are estimated to be about 13 billion cubic meters (470 billion cubic feet). This includes 1.0 billion cubic meters (34 billion cubic feet) in storage in the government stockpile, 6.8 billion cubic meters (250 billion cubic feet) in helium-rich natural gas (0.3% helium or more), and 5.2 billion cubic meters (190 billion cubic feet) in helium-lean natural gas (less than 0.3% helium). Other than the two major helium-rich natural gas fields (Riley Ridge in southwestern Wyoming and Hugoton extending from southwest Kansas through the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles), most of the helium-rich natural gas fields in the United States will be exhausted by the year 2000. As these fields deplete, future production will probably shift to extracting helium from helium-rich natural gas with little fuel value and from helium-lean resources.

Uses of Helium

Liquid Helium is used for several things, including chilling powerful magnets in Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy Cryogenic Research. Gaseous Helium is used for Gas Chromatography, Leak Detection, Scuba Diving, Medical Therapy, Controlled/Modified Atmospheres Balloons (including the ones in the Macy’s Parade) and Airships. It is also used in Welding, and as a heat transfer medium. Liquid Helium is an ideal source of cold for superconductivity and for low temperature applications. In particular liquid Helium enables the development of the high strength magnetic fields required in NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imagery) Spectroscopy and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagery) medical body scanners. Liquid Helium is also used extensively in low temperature research.

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