SALT LAKE CITY — That party balloon, MRI and heart resuscitation pump all rely on an inert gas produced in a handful of states around the nation, including three active wells in Utah.
A House bill to allow the Bureau of Land Management to lease federal land for helium extraction passed Wednesday, moving the United States a step closer to streamlining the capture of the critical natural resource.
"Helium has become irreplaceable in our space, defense and medical industries. Without this bill, we could become dangerously dependent on unstable foreign countries for our supply of helium. This bill encourages the development of American sources of helium and will boost both our national security and economy," said HR3279 sponsor Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif.
The federal agency already permits helium capture as part of the natural gas extraction process — it is a byproduct — but Cook's measure allows unproductive oil and gas leases to continue if enough helium is still being captured.
The United States holds one-third of the world's supply of helium and began storing the nonrenewable resource in Amarillo, Texas, in 1917 for use in blimps.
By 1927, the government opened a plant there for research, and with the onset of World War II, demand for the odorless, tasteless and colorless gas boomed. The element is used in a wide variety of applications, including a cooling agent for nuclear reactors, as a high-speed "push" gas for air-to-air missile guidance corrections, rare document preservation and as an inert shield for arc welding.
In Texas, the 3,000-feet deep porous rock reservoir was injected with helium in the 1960s and today, it provides enough of the gas to meet more than 40 percent of the domestic demand. The next largest producers are Qatar, followed by Algeria and Russia.
But regulators and the industry are worried over the political upheaval in Qatar, which supplies 95 percent of U.S. helium imports.
A memo on the bill when it was before a House natural resources subcommittee in June indicated it would be "imprudent" to rely on foreign suppliers of helium given the political, economic and diplomatic uncertainty that exists.
Utah is home to the Harley Dome gas field, which has proven to hold economically viable quantities of helium in significant concentrations.
The Grand County site just shy of Colorado's border in southeastern Utah is unique because the natural gas reservoir features high concentrations of helium.
The site, which includes a processing plant, has three active wells that have cumulatively produced 602,158 thousand cubic feet of helium.
Suvankar Chakraborty is a University of Utah researcher who uses analytical instruments that rely on helium.
Chakraborty, lab manager for the Stable Isotope Ratio Facility for Environmental Research, said nonreactive helium is so light it is used to push other gases and has applications for isotopic studies in fields that include geology and biology.
The lab includes instruments valued at $3.5 million that, if helium were not available, would become worthless.2 comments on this story
He recalled while first starting work with this type of instrumentation in Kentucky, a large tank of helium cost $65. Today, the price has shot up to $185 because of shortages and demand.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said the helium measure is critical to help shore up supplies.
“With this bill, we seek responsible development of another critical natural resource that will provide increased American security, economic stability and domestic job creation," he said, adding he plans to work with the Senate to get the legislation to President Donald Trump.