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Cadillacs, Congress and the Helium Reserve

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Mar. 2, 2010 — Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the Cadillac Ranch, the peculiar paean to the open road that lies just west of Amarillo, Tex., was created under the patronage of Stanley Marsh 3, a local, rather eccentric helium tycoon.

The National Helium Reserve consists of an underground store near Amarillo, Texas, which is also home to the Cadillac Ranch.

I drove through Amarillo on Saturday — for reasons too convoluted to get into here — and stopped off at the ranch, parking on the edge of an I-40 access road and trudging maybe 100 yards through dried and drying mud to inspect the Cadillacs jutting out of the plain. As I explored the dozen or so cars, I wondered whether it was a passion for the road that led Marsh to create this monument or simply the same impulse that compelled him, more recently, to disrupt a live Weather Channel broadcast with his own take on a Native American snow dance.

Also, I couldn’t help but ponder what he might make of the current helium situation.

Recognizing the importance of the gas for airships, the US government established a National Helium Reserve in 1925 (for a timeline of helium production in the US, click here). Since then, of course, helium has proved valuable for a host of additional applications, from the helium-neon lasers currently used in laser eye surgery and laser points to medical diagnostics with magnetic resonance imaging, from cryogenics studies and research using high-energy accelerators to purging the tanks of liquid-fuelled NASA and Department of Defense rockets.

Over time, private demand for helium has come to outpace federal demand, leading the government to revisit and redefine its role in production of the gas. With the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, Congress decided to sell off the bulk of the reserve, instructing the secretary of the interior to unload 850 million standard cubic meters (scm) by 2015, leaving only 17 million scm – less than a two-year supply.

Scientists balked at this. The planet’s supply of helium is finite and irreplaceable, they reminded us, and reducing the nation’s reserve of the gas would leave us vulnerable to shortages, especially as new applications appear and demand continues to rise. Sure enough, in recent years, a series of supply problems — including plant shutdowns and delays in new plants coming online — have conspired to create such shortages. These have in turn led to price increases impacting a variety of industries (see “Helium: Up, Up and Away?” and “Helium Demand Ballooning” for detailed coverage).

Now, a report from the National Research Council concludes that selling off the helium reserve “has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of the U.S. taxpayers or the country.” It goes on to make several recommendations with respect to improving the helium program, including changing the pricing mechanisms for the helium being sold and expanding an “in-kind” program that provide helium directly to federally funded agencies and research.

The report, “Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve,” also begins to address the most effective ways to meet the United States’ current and future helium needs, with general recommendations about gathering information to aid in effective management of the Reserve and implementing strategies to develop a more comprehensive long-term program.
Mar 2010
AmarilloCadillac RanchCongressdefenseDepartment of DefenseDifferent WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogheliumHelium Privatization Acthelium-neon lasersNASANational Helium ReserveNational Research CouncilStanley MarshstockpileTexastycoonlasers

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