The Federal Helium Program
The Federal Helium Program has undergone many changes since its inception in 1925. Its original purpose was to ensure supplies of helium to the Federal Government for defense, research, and medical purposes.
Over time, the program evolved into a conservation program with a primary goal of supplying the Federal Government with high-grade helium for high-tech research and aerospace purposes.
The most recent adaptation of the program was through the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which redefined the primary functions as:
- Operating and maintaining a helium storage reservoir and pipeline system view map
- Providing crude helium gas by contract with private companies
- Evaluating the Nation’s helium-bearing gas fields
- Providing responsible access to Federal land for managed recovery and disposal of helium view map
History of the Federal Helium Program
The United States government became interested in helium during World War I. The Army valued it as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen for use in buoyant aircraft.
In 1925 Congress created a Federal Helium Program to ensure that helium would be available to the government for defense needs. The Bureau of Mines constructed and operated a large helium extraction and purification plant just north of Amarillo, Texas, that went into operation in 1929. From 1929 to 1960 the federal government was the only domestic producer of helium.
During and after World War II the demand for helium increased. In response, Congress passed amendments to the Helium Act in 1960. The amendments provided incentives for private natural gas producers to strip helium from natural gas and sell it to the government. The Secretary of the Interior was given authority to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury to buy helium. Some of this helium was used for research, NASA’s space program, and other applications, but most was injected into a storage facility known as the Federal Helium Reserve. The 1960 amendments required the Bureau of Mines to set prices on the helium it sold that would cover all of the helium program’s costs and repay its debts.
Federal demand for helium did not live up to post-war expectations, and by the 1990s private demand for helium far exceeded federal demand. The 1996 Helium Privatization Act redefined the government’s role in helium production. The Bureau of Land Management was made responsible for operating the Federal Helium Reserve and providing enriched crude helium to private refiners.