High Hopes for Ending the Helium Shortage

“A man can’t just sit around.”

That’s what Larry Walters of San Pedro, CA told police after he went, or should I say floated, on a little joy ride in the sky. No, he wasn’t in a plane or helicopter. He was strapped to a lawn chair, with 45 helium-filled weather balloons attached. And no, Mr. Walters was not an actual pilot.

Armed with some sandwiches, Miller Lite and a pellet gun, Walters took off, expecting to go up a harmless 30 ft, but that wasn’t the case.

He found himself stuck at 16,000 ft, floating aimlessly across the great California sky.

He eventually shot a few balloons and descended unharmed, but not without disrupting air traffic control and taking out power lines that left a Long Beach, CA neighborhood in the dark.

Walters received some hefty fines, but no matter, because he will always be known as the Lawn Chair Pilot- sparking interest in helium lawn chair travel up to this day. Several others have turned lawn chair ballooning into a sport and we all know the cute Pixar movie, “Up”.

But, in all reality helium is more than just birthday balloons and sucking gas to talk like a munchkin. It plays a key part in several industrial and scientific fields, and  there is worry of an impending massive helium shortage worldwide due to, what else? Good ol’ U.S. government involvement.

But now, scientists, doctors and lawn chair balloonists can rest easy.

In April, the U.S. House passed a bill that would stop the shortage from occurring and help correct problems created by the Bureau of land Management (BLM) selling helium below market price.

Today, the U.S. produces 70% of the world’s helium from the helium-rich gas fields of Amarillo, TX, part of the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve. In 1996, it was mandated that the government sell off the reserves until BLM had earned back $1.3 billion that had been spent to accumulate the gas in the first place. It was assumed by the time money was earned back, private helium companies would be available to meet the demand and the government would be out of the helium ring.

Well, BLM is breaking even this year with sales, private companies are not yet available to pick up production and beyond that there was no other mandate to sell the remaining 370 billion liters of helium.

That’s where the new Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 comes in. To clear up the government pricing issues, sales will continue for another year and then 60% of the helium will be sold in semiannual auctions. To stop the shortage, the bill mandates that when reserves reach 85 billion liters, sales will be limited to federal users, to ensure a supply for federal research for another 10 years.