BACKGROUND: PROPERTIES, USES, AND SOURCE OF HELIUM
Helium is an element with many remarkable properties. The helium atom is smaller than that of any other element, and helium is second only to hydrogen in lightness. It has a particularly stable and symmetrical structure. The nucleus of the atom consists of two protons and either one or two neutrons, depending on the isotope. The two electrons of the helium atom form a closed spherical shell that is tightly bound to the nucleus. The ionization potential for helium is higher than that for any other element. As a result, helium is chemically inert and does not form stable compounds with other elements. The attractive forces between helium atoms are also so weak that helium has the lowest liquefaction temperature of all the "permanent" gases and, unlike all other elements, does not freeze under its own vapor pressure as the temperature is lowered toward absolute zero. At 1 atm, 4He liquefies at 4.2 K, whereas hydrogen liquefies at 20.4 K and neon at 27.1 K.
The properties of helium make it critical to a wide variety of important technologies for commercial and military uses and for fundamental scientific research. For example, helium's low density and inertness make it an ideal lifting gas. Its high thermal conductivity plays a vital role in the heat treatment of optical fibers, while its high diffusivity ensures that no bubbles are trapped to destroy the fiber's properties. Helium's low liquefaction temperature makes it desirable for the purging and pressurizing of liquid-hydrogen rocket propulsion systems and for cryogenic applications such as the cooling of superconducting magnets for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and superconducting cavities for high-energy accelerators. Liquid helium is also of great scientific interest in itself. Liquid 4He undergoes a phase transition to a superfluid state when the temperature is lowered below 2.2 K. The superfluid properties of liquid 4He are generally believed to be a manifestation of the phenomenon known as Bose-Einstein condensation, where the whole liquid exhibits macroscopic quantum properties such as quantization of the superfluid flow field. Another important research application for liquid helium is the 3He-4He dilution refrigerator, which employs both isotopes and allows routine access to temperatures within a few tens of millidegrees above absolute zero.
Helium is also a rare and nonrenewable resource. Unlike ordinary goods and services that can be produced virtually forever, every unit of helium that is produced and used today will eventually escape Earth's atmosphere and become one less unit available for use tomorrow.
Although the total terrestrial inventory of helium is estimated to be 17,000 trillion standard cubic feet (scf), equivalent to 470 trillion standard cubic meters (scm), most of this supply is in Earth's atmosphere at a concentration of only 5 ppm and would be very expensive to extract. Natural gas, some of which has helium concentrations as high as 8 percent, is the source for most of the helium we use. Generally, natural gas containing more than 0.3 percent helium is considered economic for helium extraction in the United States, although the economics of helium extraction often depend on other products in a natural gas stream. Most U.S. helium-rich natural gas is located in the Hugoton-Panhandle field in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and the LaBarge field in the Riley Ridge area of Wyoming.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-273). The act directs the secretary of the Interior to commence offering for sale the approximately 30.5 billion scf (1 billion scm) of federal crude helium at any time before January 1, 2005, and to complete offering for sale all of the crude helium in excess of a 0.6 billion scf (17 million scm) permanent reserve on a straight-line basis not later than January 1, 2015. Furthermore, the act determines a minimum acceptable price for the helium by dividing the program's total debt (about $1.4 billion) by the volume of crude helium in storage. According to the Congressional Research Service, this would establish a selling price of approximately $43 per thousand scf ($1.50 per scm), which is roughly 25 percent higher than the current commercial price for crude helium.
Since helium is a nonrenewable resource, the prospect of liquidating the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve is a matter of concern to many in the commercial and academic sectors. In response to this concern, the Helium Privatization Act also mandated that the Department of the Interior "enter into appropriate arrangements with the National Academy of Sciences to study and report on whether such disposal of helium reserves will have a substantial adverse effect on U.S. scientific, technical, biomedical, or national security interests." This report is the product of that mandate. It was conducted by a committee of experts in helium usage, helium-based research and development, and resource economics that was convened under the auspices of the Board on Physics and Astronomy and the National Materials Advisory Board of the National Research Council (NRC), which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The committee examined the helium market and the helium industry as a whole, to determine how the users of helium would be affected under various scenarios for liquidating the reserve within the constraints set forth in the legislation.
FEDERAL AND PRIVATE HELIUM FACILITIES AND CAPACITIES
The Federal Helium Reserve is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the Department of the Interior and stored in the Bush Dome reservoir in the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas. The Bush Dome reservoir has a total capacity of approximately 45 billion scf (1.2 billion scm). The facility currently contains approximately 30.5 billion scf (850 million scm) of government-owned crude helium, or about an 8-year world supply at the current rate of use, and an additional 4 billion scf of helium that belongs to private industry. There is no comparable storage facility for helium anywhere in the world.
In addition to the reservoir, the facility possesses roughly 450 mi (720 km) of pipeline and associated surface facilities. The pipeline stretches through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and connects 17 private crude-helium production and refining plants to the federal reservoir. These plants are primarily extracting gas from the Hugoton-Panhandle gas field complex. The operating companies regularly deposit and extract their supplies of crude helium to and from the reserve for either storage or final purification and sale, respectively. These companies are assessed fixed charges for contract administration and connections to the government pipeline. In addition, they are assessed variable charges based on their crude helium activity. The rates for the fixed and variable charges assessed private industry for the storage of helium at the Cliffside facility are calculated to exactly offset the operating expenses of the facility.
Fourteen private companies owned a total of 20 plants in 1996. Of those plants, 13 engaged in helium extraction, 11 (with some duplications) in purification, and 8 also liquefied helium. Approximately 2.8 billion scf (78 million scm) of helium were produced from the Hugoton-Panhandle complex in 1996, 2.2 billion scf (61 million scm) of which was sold and 0.6 billion scf (17 million scm) of which was stored in the Bush Dome reservoir.
ExxonMobil's Shute Creek processing plant in the Rocky Mountain region produced approximately 1.0 billion scf (28 million scm) from the LaBarge field, with an additional 0.2 billion scf (5.5 million scm) coming from other facilities in Colorado and Utah. The Rocky Mountain gas fields do not enjoy access to the helium pipeline, so they cannot store crude gas.
The private refiners in the Hugoton-Panhandle complex that are on the federal pipeline rely on the Cliffside facility to act as a flywheel. Natural gas extraction companies generally sell crude helium to helium refiners on the basis of long-term (e.g., 20-year) take-or-pay contracts, which stipulate that the refiners must buy a negotiated quantity of helium per year from natural-gas producers for an extended period of time regardless of whether they store it, refine it, or vent it. The refiners with access to the pipeline store all of their crude helium in the Cliffside facility and remove and refine it as necessary. Any crude helium in excess of current market demand will thus remain in the Cliffside facility and become part of the company's private stockpile. The amount of helium ultimately produced from the Hugoton-Panhandle complex would certainly be less if the Cliffside facility were not available.
Helium is also produced in small quantities outside the United States. Although there is currently some helium production in Russia and Poland and small amounts in China and some African countries, the most significant helium production outside the United States is currently in Algeria. Although the helium content of the native gas produced at the Algerian facility is only 0.17 percent, economics are favorable since the gas is being liquefied to LNG for shipping, resulting in a stream more highly concentrated in helium. Algerian helium principally enters the European market.
Evaluating U.S. helium reserves and resources is the responsibility of BLM. BLM has constructed a 19,000-sample database of helium concentrations, with much of the measurement having been done at its own laboratory in Amarillo. It also uses data from a variety of sources for its analyses, including Potential Gas Committee reports (see, for example, Colorado School of Mines, 1995) and data from private producers of helium-rich natural gas.
BLM categorizes helium reserves using a U.S. Geological Survey classification system that considers both physical uncertainty and economic viability (see Box OV.1). This nonstandard terminology makes it difficult to understand how much helium is potentially available. The classification scheme used by the natural gas industry is clearer, and all new helium resources are coming from that industry.
BOX OV.1 BLM's Classification Scheme for Helium Resources
BLM Helium Resource Classification Based on Physical Uncertainty
BLM Helium Resource Classification Based on Economics
The total U.S. helium resource base is estimated by BLM to have been approximately 589 billion scf (16 billion scm) as of December 31, 1996, of which 217 billion scf (6 billion scm) is classified as measured reserves. BLM's measured reserves numbers include both nondepleting reserves (i.e., known but not developed) and those in gas that is being produced but from which helium is not being extracted. BLM estimates nondepleting measured reserves of helium to be around 53 billion scf (1.5 billion scm), the bulk of which lies in deposits in the Riley Ridge area. The Riley Ridge nondepleting reserves are not likely to be produced in the foreseeable future because the gas is of poor quality. In addition, it is estimated that only 60 to 65 percent of helium-rich natural gas is being processed for helium from the Hugoton-Panhandle complex. Although this number is expected to approach 75 percent, a significant portion of these reserves will still be lost when helium-containing gas is ultimately burned as fuel. Accounting for these factors, a realistic estimate of the proved reserves of available helium is 147 billion scf (4 billion scm). At current usage of around 4 billion scf (110 million scm) per year, this reserve represents a reserve/production ratio of over 35 years.
Several factors, however, could alter the helium reserve situation. First, although the Hugoton-Panhandle field is rapidly depleting, operators are initiating programs (e.g., compression) to slow field decline. Such efforts could lead to future increases in natural gas and thus to increased helium reserves. Second, there is evidence that an increasing fraction of Hugoton-Panhandle gas is being processed for helium. Plans for helium processing plant capacity increases on the storage pipeline suggest that this trend will probably continue. Third, there is evidence that natural gas processing facilities in areas other than Hugoton-Panhandle are becoming increasingly interested in processing natural gas for helium, where feasible. All of these trends could act to increase helium reserves beyond those indicated above.
BLM also releases annual reports that track supply and demand for helium. These reports provide crucial information on the helium market and are the primary public source of data on helium use. In the 1980's BLM tracked 13 categories for helium; this was increased to 18 in the 1990s, but only 7 were usually released. These changes severely limited the ability of the committee to track helium usage over time within each category or to identify any dramatic increases or decreases in helium capacity and usage. Likewise, international consumption is not tracked very well. It needs to be tracked with the same precision as domestic consumption in order to permit the identification of any sudden changes in foreign capacity or demand. The current system primarily tracks foreign demand based on U.S. export data.
Because the data on helium demand are inadequate for predicting future trends in helium use, the committee considered a range of possible scenarios for growth in helium consumption. Although helium sales more than doubled between 1985 and 1995, the rate of increase has varied and appears to be declining. Thus, although helium consumption will probably continue to rise in the short term, it may flatten out at a level close to the current level, or even decline.
If helium demand remains constant at the 1998 level, the scenarios indicate that there will be a net storage of helium until about 2004. At that time, helium suppliers will begin to draw down their private stores, which will be exhausted in about 2015. If helium use increases at 1 percent, 3 percent, or 5 percent per year, the private reserves will be exhausted in about 2010, 2007, or 2005, respectively. If helium use decreases at 1 percent per year, the private reserves will not be exhausted until after 2020. If the amount of helium available is greater than the worst-case estimate used in these scenarios, the date at which the private reserve is exhausted will be later than indicated above.
In scenarios where the growth rate of helium consumption is less than 3 percent per year, the amount of helium private industry will need to purchase from the government to meet demand will be less than the amount the Department of the Interior is required to offer for sale. In some scenarios the difference is substantial, and it is even larger if more helium is available than the committee assumed.
ECONOMICS OF THE HELIUM MARKET
The committee's economic analysis of the helium market was based on a comprehensive framework1 developed by Scherer (1971) and modified by Radetzki (1978) and Labys (1980) to incorporate special features of mineral commodities. These features include geological uncertainty, depletability, and multistage processing. Analysis of the helium market in particular requires recognition of four special factors.
Because helium is a nonrenewable resource, there are concerns about exhaustibility and complications when it comes to the optimal allocation of the resource. Scarcity and the variation in resource quality mean that future sources of supply will cost more to produce. Present consumption from any given source thus forgoes future profits, and the value of the resource is this forgone profit. Theoretically, in a perfectly competitive market, this value will appreciate over time at the discount rate minus the cost escalation rate. Helium prices can be expected to follow this rising path, though the rise may be offset somewhat by the discovery of new deposits or the development and implementation of new technologies (e.g., for conservation and recycling). The rise might also be accelerated somewhat by increased demand. Because helium is a by-product of natural gas, extraction costs are minimal. The appreciation rate is therefore likely to be close to the real market interest rate, currently 2 to 3 percent (4 to 5 percent nominal).
A formula in the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 specifies the future price for sales from the federal helium reserve. Mielke (1997) calculated this price to be $43 per thousand scf (in 1996 dollars). In contrast, the price in the private market is currently about $32 per thousand scf. If the federal price remains constant, the government price will eventually act as a cap on private market prices. The time at which that cap becomes relevant will depend on the rate at which
private market prices appreciate. If real private prices rise by only 1 percent per year, the cap will not be reached until almost 2030. If they increase at 5 percent per year, the cap will be reached in 2006. At an intermediate appreciation rate of 3 percent, the cap will be reached in 2010, the mid-point of the projected federal sales period (this rate of appreciation corresponds to a 1 percent per year increase in helium consumption according to the Hotelling model).2 In any of these scenarios, the private price will eventually appreciate again, once the bulk of the federally owned helium has been sold.
Private purchases from the federal helium reserve may accelerate somewhat as the market price approaches the government price. If demand grows substantially and no new high-quality deposits are discovered, the reserve could be drawn down to the target level earlier than expected, or speculative private purchases could accelerate the drawing down of the reserve. The latter case would not affect actual helium consumption, but it would shift ownership from the government to the private sector and mean that carrying costs would be borne by industry.
IMPACT OF THE LEGISLATION
The helium community appears to be in the midst of an extended period of stability. Since the mid-1980s, there have been no drastic increases in the price of helium and no shortages of supply. There has also been a consistent emphasis on conservation within the industry. Every company on the BLM pipeline stores its excess crude helium, which has led to a net storage of the gas and an accumulation of a private stockpile of approximately 4 billion scf (110 million scm). As long as no major changes occur within the community (e.g., drastic increases or reductions in capacity or demand), this stability should continue.
The implementation of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 should have only a modest impact on the producers and users of helium over the next 10 to 15 years. First, the price established for the crude helium in the Federal Helium Reserve is approximately 25 percent above its current commercial price. Since all helium refiners on the BLM pipeline have long-term take-or-pay contracts with crude-helium producers, it is highly unlikely that the refining industry will buy and use gas from the Federal Helium Reserve in preference to private stockpiles and cheaper suppliers. Second, the Helium Privatization Act dictates that the Cliffside storage facility will not be sold or surplused and will continue to be available for the storage of both privately owned crude helium and the 0.6 billion scf (17 million scm) that the federal government is mandated to permanently maintain. There will thus be no changes to the methods by which private industry conserves helium that would force it to use the crude gas that constitutes the Federal Helium Reserve. Based on these two factors, it would appear that the Federal Helium Reserve will remain largely intact over the next 10-15 years and that there will be little impact on the private producers and users of helium.
In should be noted, however, that some of the Reserve will be sold during this period for consumption by federal agencies. The Helium Privatization Act mandates that all pure helium used by federal agencies must derive from the crude helium stored in the Federal Reserve. This
quantity is modest, about 0.2 billion scf (5.5 million scm) per year. Since the price for crude helium mandated by the act is higher than commercial prices, the price paid by the federal government will be higher than the price in the commercial market.
The net storage of helium by private industries at Cliffside field will probably cease within the next 10 years, for two reasons. First, demand for helium will probably continue to rise somewhat over the next few years, so helium refining will increase to satisfy user needs. Second, the Hugoton-Panhandle gas fields are becoming depleted, meaning that less privately produced crude helium will be available for the plants on the BLM pipeline. To remain in business and satisfy demand, the refining companies on the pipeline will first exploit their private stockpiles at the Cliffside facility. Once these private stockpiles are exhausted, the companies will have no realistic option other than to begin purchasing the crude available from the Federal Helium Reserve. (The only other source is more production, and production is driven by the demand for natural gas, not the demand for helium.) The quantity of crude helium drawn will increase, and refiners will become more and more dependent on this resource. Assuming no dramatic changes in the production and use of helium, however, the Federal Helium Reserve will still last for about 20 years or more, meaning that the federal target of 0.6 billion scf will not be attained until approximately 2020 or 2025.
Some changes will occur in the helium industry during the period in which the Federal Helium Reserve is being exploited, but the overall industry will probably remain stable. Although the release of the reserve will probably keep the price of crude helium lower than if no release occurs, there may be a slight increase in the price of refined helium. As the Hugoton-Panhandle gas fields are depleted and the Federal Helium Reserve is exploited, the price of crude helium will rise to the congressionally mandated price. A large portion of the price of refined helium comes from the cost of purifying and transporting the pure gas, however, so a rise of 25 percent in the price of crude helium would probably increase the price of pure helium by only 8 to 10 percent, which is not likely to have a dramatic impact on helium users. A second possible change resulting from the rise in price might be the emergence of investor interest in purchasing helium for speculation, although it is questionable whether the price of helium will rise sufficiently to make it more attractive to speculators than other investments. Even if it does, however, because long-term storage of crude helium is currently possible only at the Cliffside facility, any such investors would eventually have to sell their resources to the refining companies on the BLM pipeline, so the material would remain available.
The only remaining question about the legislation is whether its implementation will result in the repayment of the federal debt within the stipulated time period. The committee believes that it is unlikely that the Federal Helium Reserve will be sold, and the debt repaid, by 2015, since sales of the stockpile to nonfederal users will probably not begin until about 2010 or 2015. However, the impact on helium users of a failure to repay the debt is likely to be small, because the debt no longer accrues interest and is carried by our entire society.
Finding: Based on the information assembled for this report, the committee believes that the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 will not have a substantial impact on helium users.
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 requires that the secretary of the Interior, after receiving this report, consult with industry and others and then, if he believes the situation so warrants, make recommendations for legislation to mitigate the adverse impacts. In those
consultations, a number of issues are likely to arise that are outside the main scope of the present study. These include concerns such as whether:
Enacting legislation to reduce the price of crude helium below commercial levels or to sell it in lots at auction could seriously destabilize the helium market by increasing the probability that a single company or individual will purchase all or most of the helium in the reserve, thus creating a helium refining monopoly;
The total supply of helium produced from wells would diminish if part of the reserve were sold before it was needed to meet the demand for helium;
The debt repayment schedule is appropriate;
There are alternative methods for raising revenue if the government is intent on repaying the debt faster than is possible under the current legislation; and
The preservation of a viable, unsubsidized helium industry that helps this country to excel in many areas of science, technology, and national security outweighs the method and timing of debt repayment.
Unless new light is cast on these issues during the secretary's consultations with industry and others, the committee can find no reason to recommend seeking changes in the legislation.
FOLLOW-ON ACTIVITIES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Although the committee believes that the implementation of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 should not have an adverse effect on the overall production and usage of helium over the next two decades, there are a number of research programs and follow-on studies that should be considered because they would ensure that sufficient supplies of helium continue to be available to satisfy the needs of known and potential users beyond 2020.
The committee's assessment of the impact of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was based on a number of assumptions about the future. The first assumption was that demand for helium would continue to rise at a steady pace, albeit much more slowly than between 1985 and 1995. The second assumption was that no drastic reductions in capacity would occur, such as a plant off the BLM pipeline ceasing production (as a result, for example, of natural disasters, plant disasters, or market decisions). The third assumption was that no new large-volume sources of helium would be discovered.
The legislation mandates that the impact of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 should be reassessed in 2015. A mechanism should be developed, however, to ensure that a review can occur earlier, especially if anything happens that would change any of the three assumptions. The most prudent approach would be for the helium industry to be reviewed on a periodic basis, say, every 5 or 10 years.
Recommendation: The committee recommends that future reviews of the helium industry be commissioned by BLM either (1) in response to drastic increases or decreases in helium capacity or use or (2) regularly, every 5 or 10 years.
BLM should assist this continual review by improving its methods for tracking helium capacity and use. The following recommended improvements will help ensure the timely identification of important shifts in the industry:
Develop and implement a consistent and credible taxonomy of helium uses.
Develop and implement better methods for tracking the international helium market.
Report helium reserves using the natural gas industry's classification scheme.
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 stipulates that the Federal Helium Reserve should eventually stabilize at 0.6 billion scf (17 million scm), which is approximately a 2-year supply at current demand levels. The committee believes that a study is required to determine whether this is an optimal long-term supply and whether this quantity of gas can remain in the Bush Dome reservoir at sufficient concentrations to be available for future refining.
Recommendation: The committee recommends that BLM study the adequacy of the Bush Dome reservoir as the reserves are depleted. Specific study tasks that should be considered include the following:
Determine the optimal size of a federal stockpile of crude helium.
Develop models of gas extraction at the Bush Dome reservoir to predict the helium content of future extracted gas.
Determine whether the quantity of gas that remains in the Bush Dome reservoir will be adequate to meet future federal needs in the event of a temporary drop in private production.
Reassess the pricing structure for the storage of helium at the Cliffside facility so that it more accurately reflects the value of the facility.
To ensure the continued supply of helium into the future, research and development should be conducted in three main areas.
Recommendation: The committee recommends that the Department of Interior conduct research development to ensure the continued supply of helium into the future. Goals for this research and development should include (1) new geological models and exploration technologies, (2) improved helium storage systems, and (3) enhanced technologies to conserve, recycle, and eventually replace helium.
The following specific research and development tasks should be considered:
Determine the geological characteristics and processes that permit the formation of helium-rich gas fields and develop methodologies and databases to assist in the discovery of these fields.
Identify potential sites for natural storage facilities to permit the establishment of new facilities near future major helium producers and to allow an increase in the storage and conservation capabilities of helium users.
Develop economic models for the extraction and storage of joint-product, nonrenewable resources the production of one of which is dominated by supply and demand for the other.
Incrementally improve the efficiency of technologies that currently depend on helium and develop alternative technologies that do not require helium.