The National Helium Reserve, also known as the Federal Helium Reserve, is a strategic reserve of the United States, which once held over 1 billion cubic meters (about 170,000,000 kg)[a] of helium gas. The helium is stored at the Cliffside Storage Facility about 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Amarillo, Texas, in a natural geologic gas storage formation, the Bush Dome reservoir. The reserve was established with the enactment of the Helium Act of 1925. The strategic supply provisioned the noble gas for airships, and in the 1950s became an important source of coolant during the Cold War and Space Race.
The facilities are located close to the Hugoton and other natural gas fields in southwest Kansas and the panhandle of Oklahoma, plus the Panhandle Field in Texas. These fields contain natural gas with unusually high percentages of helium—from 0.3% to 2.7%—and constitute the United States' largest helium source. The helium is separated as a byproduct from the produced natural gas.
After the Helium Acts Amendments of 1960 (Public Law 86–666), the U.S. Bureau of Mines arranged for five private plants to recover helium from natural gas. For this helium conservation program, the Bureau built a 425-mile (684 km) pipeline from Bushton, Kansas, to connect those plants with the government's partially depleted Cliffside gas field. This helium-nitrogen mixture was injected and stored in the Cliffside gas field until needed, when it then was further purified.
By 1995, a billion cubic metres of the gas had been collected, and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting Congress to begin phasing out the reserve in 1996. The resulting Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (Public Law 104–273) directed the Department of the Interior to start selling off the reserve by 2005.
Government sales flooded the market with cheap helium, causing much of the private helium industry to shut down; the facility remained in government hands. The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 mandated higher prices but a continued selldown to 3 billion cubic feet remaining by October 1, 2018, which was achieved with auctions. It also set a deadline of September, 30, 2021 for sale of the reserve. BLM transferred it to the General Services Administration (GSA) as surplus property, but as of early June 2023, a 2022 auction failed to finalize a sale. On June 22, 2023, the GSA announced a new auction of the facilities and remaining helium. The auction of the last helium assets is due to take place in November, 2023.
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- The National Helium Reserve and related media at History.com; retrieved December 9, 2013
- Pierce, A.P., Gott, G.B., and Mytton, J.W., Uranium and Helium in the Panhandle Gas Field Texas, and Adjacent Areas, Geological Survey Professional Paper 454-G, Washington:US Government Printing Office, 1964.
- "Managing the BLM's Helium Program". Archived from the original on 2013-06-29. Retrieved 2013-05-01.
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- Gonzalez, Sarah (August 16, 2019). "Find The Helium (Episode 933)". NPR Planet Money. Retrieved 2019-08-23. (podcast on origin and history)
- The Federal Helium Program
- Federal Helium System at Cliffside
- Pflum, Mary (February 7, 2023). "The fate of America's largest supply of helium is up in the air". NBC News.
- "GSA Announces Sale of Federal Helium System Assets" (Press release). General Services Administration. June 22, 2023.
- "GSA Auctions". General Services Administration.
- Phillips, Will (February 23, 2022). "Helium supply crunch looms as US alters storage strategy". Supply Management. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
- Federal Helium Program
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- Helium, when will it run out?
- New York Times article with map
- Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527) October 2013
- Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documentation:
- HAER No. TX-105, "U.S. Bureau of Mines, Helium Plants, Amarillo, Potter County, TX", 3 measured drawings
- HAER No. TX-105-A, "U.S. Bureau of Mines, Helium Plants, Amarillo Helium Plant, 10001 Interchange 552, Amarillo, Potter County, TX", 4 measured drawings, 58 data pages
- HAER No. TX-105-B, "U.S. Bureau of Mines, Helium Plants, Exell Helium Plant, Highway 287N, Masterson, Moore County, TX", 40 photos, 9 measured drawings, 19 data pages, 3 photo caption pages