Health & Science

The Fate of America's Largest Supply of Helium Is Up in the Air

The Federal Helium Reserve was supposed to be sold off in 2021. Scientists hope it will remain in government hands.

Deward Cawthon, plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve, walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas,
Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

For more than a year, the fate of the Federal Helium Reserve, one of the world’s largest and most dependable suppliers of helium, has been uncertain. 

The mammoth underground structure is comprised of nearly 500 miles of pipeline — stretching from Amarillo, Texas, to the panhandle of Oklahoma to Kansas — and supplies roughly 40% of the world’s helium. 

“It was supposed to be sold off by 2021,” said Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the nation’s leading helium experts. “But for the past year, it’s been silent.” 

For the better part of a decade, scientists like Hayes have urged government officials to hold on to the reserve, instead of selling it to a private entity — likely a major industrial gas or pipeline company, and possibly one that is foreign-owned. They say that the decision Congress made in 1996 to set into motion a 25-year plan to unload the reserve, in a bid to shrink government, was shortsighted and potentially detrimental to a host of industries, ranging from medical technology to rocket science.

Last week, a government-issued helium bulletin inflated their hopes that the United States may be thinking harder about helium.

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