Future Tense

Our Government May Be Shut Down, but at Least Our Helium Reserve Won’t Be … for Now

Thumbs up! We’re still running out of helium.

Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

Last Thursday, back in the days when our government was still functioning, Congress approved a bill that would prevent another nationally important institution from shutting down: the National Helium Reserve. While the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act of 2013 is now in President Obama’s hands, after years of wrangling, the unanimously supported bill is likely to pass into law.

Before you make jokes about birthday party balloons (don’t worry, your member of Congress did that for you), you should take a brief moment to celebrate (but not with balloons), because you too should be concerned about our nationally dwindling helium supply. Helium is kind of amazing: In addition to making your voice sound funny, its unique properties are the reason MRI machines work, and it’s essential for aerospace technology, computer chips, and deep-sea diving. Oh, and as Noam Prywes and I explained last year, we’re also totally running out of it.

The bill, while great, only ensures that we keep the reserve open. Started in 1925 to confirm our dominance in the zeppelin wars, the National Helium Reserve upped its game in 1960, when Congress created incentives for natural gas producers to sell their supply of helium to the reserve, and it has been stored by the Bureau of Land Management in giant underground caverns in Texas ever since. But in 1996, while the BLM had lots of helium, it was deeply in debt, so Congress passed a law, and the reserve began to sell the resource to private companies as fast as possible, artificially lowering the price and depleting the helium supply. Now, the United States relies on the reserve for about one-half of all the helium we consume, and the 1996 law was set to expire Oct. 7. While closing the reserve would have had huge consequences on the helium trade, keeping it open doesn’t prevent us from running out of this vital resource. It won’t produce new helium, and neither can we—it’s possible in theory but cost prohibitive and requires fission or nuclear fusion.

Depending on how you calculate, all the currently available helium on Earth will be depleted in about 40 years. Then what? Our government, even if it’s back up by then, won’t be able to help us.