SALT LAKE CITY — What is poised to be United States' first exploratory well devoted solely to the extraction of helium has received the go-ahead from federal regulators, with construction slated to begin in a remote section of Grand County in the next two months.
The 1,100-foot-deep well will go in 1.3 miles from the Utah/Colorado border, just north of I-70, on federal land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
After the BLM issued its approval of the project to Denver-based Flatirons Resources, the company said it will construct the well in an area of the Harley Dome gas field where history indicates the gas stream may hold economically viable quantities of helium and in significant concentrations.
The colorless, odorless and inert gas — in short supply globally — is recovered in natural gas extraction, but it requires large gas fields to produce substantial quantities.
If history bears out and the Grand County site holds recoverable helium, Flatirons plans to build a processing plant on nearby private land.
While most commonly associated with party and parade balloons, helium has critical military, aerospace and medical uses. Helium is used in rocket engine testing, air-to-air missile guidance systems and to cool the magnets in magnetic resonance imaging machines, among other things.
According to the BLM, helium demand is outstripping the global supply, exacerbated by processing plant issues in Qatar and Algeria, and closer to home, the delay of a new Wyoming plant's opening. The sharp decline in natural gas prices is also fueling the crisis, with fewer quantities of helium being produced.
"The wonderful part of this is that anything we can do in the United States and the world to bring more helium to market really alleviates the shortage that we are currently experiencing," said Joe Peterson, the BLM's assistant field manager for helium resources in Amarillo, Texas, home to the nation's Federal Helium Reserve.
In Utah, the BLM said only one plant is extracting helium as a waste product from natural gas, so this exploratory well has the potential to thrust the state into an entire new dimension of value for its natural resources.
"It's a pretty important project," said Lisa Bryant, with the BLM in Moab.
Bryant said the Harley Dome gas field is unique because it is believed the helium reservoir contains unusually high concentrations of helium — as much as 5 percent — and low concentrations of flammable gasses like methane.
Peterson termed that concentration as "very significant," pointing out that most helium ranges between 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent as part of the volume of natural gas.
The Utah well has interesting implications, especially given that the global helium shortage has been labeled a crisis by federal regulators.
"Helium is abundant in nature, abundant in space, but not quite so abundant on Earth," Peterson said. "The hope is that this is a sizable reservoir of helium."
The Federal Helium Reserve, which is actually a natural dolomite formation, supplies about 42 percent of the U.S. crude helium requirements and 35 percent of the world's demand for crude helium.
Helium is a sort of wonder element, having the lowest boiling and melting points of all elements. It is the coldest liquid known, does not ever become radioactive and has no known replacement.
A bipartisan bill to address the helium shortage cleared the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee earlier this month and puts into play market-based reforms. One aspect of the bill calls for prohibition of commercial sales when the reserve hits 3 billion cubic feet of helium. What's left will be reserved for federal needs such as national defense and national security.
Peterson said a lot of attention is on the Utah project, with hopes that it lives up to expectations.
"We've been interested in this for roughly 20 years," he said. "We're happy to see it finally developing."