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Not with a bang but with a high-pitched whimper. The slow death of the federal helium program

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On Oct. 1, 2013 the federal government became the victim of a gridlocked Congress and began to shut down. Hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed without notice while many more kept working – unsure of when they would be paid.

Just one day later the 50 or so employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s Cliffside Gas Field – the last remaining federal helium plant – breathed a sigh of relief. The facility had only been allowed to operate until Oct. 7, but Congress had managed to finalize legislation that would keep the facility open for more than six years.

The Bureau of Land Management's remaining helium facility.

The Bureau of Land Management’s remaining helium facility.

President Obama signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law on Oct. 2. The shutdown wouldn’t be over until Oct. 16, nearly two weeks later. The helium program continued.

The Cliffside facility is one of the last remnants of the Federal Helium Program, which purchased helium-rich natural gas from private companies and stored them in the porous rock about 12 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas and processed it through nearly half-a-dozen facilities.

The slow decline of the program belied its importance to national defense and scientific research. The government first began storing helium there in 1925 when airships were all the rage. But helium’s ability to super cool materials made it perfect for high-tech research and machinery (think MRI machines) and helped in critical missions within NASA and other agencies.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (right after hydrogen) but it is incredibly hard to pull the gas from the air. The most common way to obtain helium is as a byproduct from natural gas drilling.

By 1960 the government had purchased about 34 billion cubic feet of helium rich natural gas from drillers and had stored it in what helium experts called “the dome” next to the Cliffside facility and had built about 420 miles of underground pipeline stretching from Texas to Kansas. Along the way were private helium refiners that use the Cliffside reserves to further purify the gas and then sell it.

In 1996 Congress passed a bill that would gradually phase out the reserve. That process was sped up by the Helium Privitzation Act of 1996 which set aggressive targets for the selling off of stored helium.

But the legislation passed on Oct. 2 did not reinvigorate a federal program in decline or breath into it new life. It merely stamped an official date on its death certificate.

There are now only about 10 billion cubic feet of helium left in Cliffside’s reserves, and the Bureau of Land Management projects it will sell but 3 billion by the time its new authorization expires on Sept. 30, 2021 and the privatization of helium storage will be complete.

By then the BLM will have made arrangements to sell all of the equipment, the facility and even the underground pipeline to a private company or companies, according to Robert Jolley, the Amarillo field office manager for BLM. He said the facility supplies about 32 percent of the world’s helium supply and around 42 percent of helium within the United States. But that won’t last much longer.

“Our supplies are dwindling and we are on the last few years of our capability, so those percentages are dropping,” he said.

But Jolley is grateful the facility has been given time to close, instead of being shut down immediately last year. The work would have stopped in its tracks and he is not sure what would have happened afterwards.

“We were sweating being laid off,” he said.

Once the equipment is under contract and the facility and its pipeline are handed over to a private company, what happens then? Jolly said the selling process will begin sometime in 2019 but will hopefully include some provisions that it will remain in BLM hands up until the last day of authorization.

“We will try to operate up until the very end if possible,” he said.

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