During World War I, the United States Army wanted helium for blimps and other aircraft, so in 1925, Congress created the Federal Helium Program to ensure that helium would be available for defense purposes. In 1929, the Bureau of Mines constructed and began operating a helium extraction plant; from 1929 to 1960, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal government was the only U.S. producer of helium.
During and after World War II, helium demand continued to rise, so Congress amended the program in 1960 to allow incentives for natural gas producers to strip helium from natural gas and sell it to the government. Some of this helium was used for research, NASA’s space program and other applications, but most was injected into a storage facility known as the Federal Helium Reserve. In accordance with the 1960 amendments, the Bureau of Mines was required to set prices on the helium it sold so that the costs of the program, as well as its debts, would be covered.
As technology changed, the federal government no longer required significant quantities of helium and, by the 1990s, private demand exceeded federal needs. So Congress enacted the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, to sell enriched crude helium to private refiners. Rather than help private helium suppliers, the government’s sales destabilized the industry and now, supplies are limited and prices are up.
While this “storm” has been building for about a year now, it’s likely that it will eventually blow over. New domestic suppliers and imports from other countries should help meet demand. In a January 2012 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, a new extraction facility in Wyoming could boost supplies although the report also indicates that “international helium extraction facilities are more likely sources for future [needs because] seven international helium plants are in operation and more are planned for the next three to five years.”
In the meantime, many floral departments are conserving helium with tricks like these from balloon supplier burton + BURTON. They’re also turning to air-filled alternatives. Access creative ideas for using air from burton + BURTON here.