NAS: selling vast federal helium reserves is a mistake

IT hardware, enormous magnetic particle cannon dimension portals, MRI brain probes — even deep-diving breathing gases.

Page notes that it is also quite rare on Earth. Though the second-most-common element in the universe after hydrogen, small helium molecules are so light they escape into space once free in the atmosphere. As is the case with natural gas, they can be trapped in underground rock formations — but they leak out a lot quicker. There would not be any helium in or on Earth at all, goes the thinking, except that radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth’s crust produces alpha particles. These are, of course, helium nuclei once they have slowed down. Thus there is a constant trickle of new helium being formed within the planet, enough that in some locations it builds up to extractable levels in subterranean gas pockets.

Helium is also pretty expensive to store for any length of time, which means that normal natural-gas drilling and refining operations, producing helium as a waste product, would normally throw it away if there was no customer just then. Once airships went away after the Second World War, this seemed set to happen — which could have been bad news later on for the U.S. rocket program once all the helium was gone: hence the establishment of the Federal Helium Reserve in 1960.

Under the Reserve, the U.S. government arranged that the gas wells richest in helium would be hooked up to a special pipeline network spanning Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, connected to the Bush Dome — a big underground dome full of permeable gassy rock with a covering of impermeable stone over it. As natural gas was extracted through wells, the resulting “crude” (or low-purity) helium was injected into the Dome for easy extraction later, when NASA or the nuclear-missile forces should need it.

Page note that in the event, though space and nuke rocketry are to this day a major user of helium (accounting for about a quarter of U.S. consumption), they did not need that much, so vast amounts — some 35 billion cubic feet, compared to annual use of 650 million cubic feet — built up in the Bush Dome. After the cold war, meanwhile, reliable supplies of helium for then-rapidly reducing missile forces seemed less important. Thus, in 1996 Congress passed a law saying that almost all the Federal Helium Reserve stock was to be sold off by 2015 at such prices as to recoup the expense the U.S. taxpayers had gone to in establishing it.

This is the plan which the NAS analysts say is going wrong. They point out the facts that the Bush Dome is the only major storage facility in the world (barring a reported one in a “salt dome” in Russia), and that the Reserve sales program makes up more than half the global supply. Meanwhile, only a handful of companies have any access to the Bush Dome and its associated pipelines, and they tend to do business with each other and their customers behind closed doors.

Thus, according to the NAS, “there is no actual ‘market’ for crude helium… there is no ‘market price’.”

Worse still, the prices set by the 1996 Act and the 2015 deadline are making it very difficult for scientific researchers to afford enough helium — and the pace of extraction from the Bush Dome will leave a lot of its contents needlessly trapped underground, unrecoverable. The fact that the government is selling large amounts of helium every year, too, means that nobody is bothering to explore for new sources.

The NAS analysts say that the government should, firstly, open up access to the Dome and its pipeline network, so creating a proper market for helium. The gas should be sold, in general, at a higher and more realistic price — so encouraging exploration and paying off the taxpayers faster.

This would be bad for scientific research, however, so the NAS recommends the extension of the so-called “in kind” scheme under which federally funded researchers with small budgets would be able to get cheap helium. Some already can, but many funding bodies do not participate.

Finally, the NAS is not sure that the plan of getting rid of almost all the U.S.— and thus almost all the world’s — stock of helium is that good an idea, at least until some new sources are found. The report’s authors recommend that the plan be “re-evaluated.”

You can read the whole thing here (free registration required).