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Two Myths Surrounding The Helium Shortage

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The helium shortage has captured headlines across the country. Over the past few months, there have been hundreds of articles written about the current state of supply and the rising costs of helium. Just in the past few days, headlines like “Helium shortage deflates grad parties” and “Helium shortage threatens parties as we know them” have graced the banners of local and national news outlets across the country. While most of these articles fail to capture the gravity of the situation beyond the outlook for party balloons, this is not the real concern. What is concerning is the amount of misinformation swirling around about the helium shortage.

“The helium shortage was caused by the government.”

This fallacy pervades news reports, and the bottom line is it’s simply not true. An Associated Press article appearing in such publications as The Washington Post states, “Helium is in short supply because of the 1996 Helium Privatization Act that called on the government to sell off most of its helium reserves by 2015.”

Meanwhile, an editorial in Tuesday’s edition of The Boston Globe reads, “The nation is selling off its vast helium reserve — in such a ham-fisted way that it’s led to a shortage of the gas.”

These statements are not only simplistic, but inaccurate. The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, correctly reported that the helium shortage has been caused by a variety of coinciding factors, particularly plant outages and shutdowns across the globe. It helps that The Tribune spoke with industry experts like Linde’s head of global helium, Nick Haines.

I also had the pleasure of speaking with Haines a few months ago, who explained that helium is a globally traded product, and outages anywhere in the world affect everyone. Planned and unplanned outages across the world are largely to blame for the current situation, not the U.S. government’s plan to sell off its reserves.

“The United States is running out of helium.”

While partially true, it’s not for the reasons outlined by the media. An article in The Washington Post attempted to explain the need for legislation to replace the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (HPA), but when it was reprinted in The Boston Globe, careless editing made the statement even more off base: “Thanks to a 1996 law that has forced the government to sell off its helium reserves at bargain-bin prices, the country’s stockpile of the relatively rare and nonrenewable gas could soon vanish.” (WP used the word “dwindle” in place of “vanish.”)

Here’s the problem with that statement. Under the existing system, the federal helium program will be shut down long before it ever runs out of helium. This is one of the main reasons the industry is scrambling to get new legislation in place before the HPA expires. Air Products’ Director of Helium Sourcing Walter Nelson told the Senate that “At current production rates of about two billion cubic feet per year, the reservoir could continue to produce helium for five to six more years.” He also noted that “Helium was removed from the reservoir at rates lower than those projected.”

So while we may run out of helium if the HPA expires, it’s not because the government is selling it off too fast. It’s simply because we would lose access to stockpiles that currently provide almost a third of the world’s helium, stranding valuable helium supplies.

Overall, the media is sending a lot of fuzzy and often incorrect messages. Distributors may be wise to take advantage of this opportunity to share their expertise with local news outlets, and receive some visibility in exchange.

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