Photograph of a helium plant with a truck parked in front.
The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit in the Cliffside Gas Field.  (BLM)

Managing the BLM’s Helium Program

By Leslie A. Theiss

When I agreed to take on the job as the manager of the federal helium program in Amarillo, Texas, the only thing I knew about helium was that it was used for blimps and balloons.  Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

The federal helium program has a long, proud history in the Texas Panhandle.  The original purpose of the program was to ensure supplies of helium were available to the federal government for defense, research, and medical applications.  The government acquired the Bush Dome, a geologic structure containing a partially depleted gas reservoir, in the 1920s for this reason.  During and after World War II, the demand for helium increased, and in the 1960s, the government purchased helium to fill up the dome. 

Over time, the program evolved into a conservation program with a goal of supplying high-grade helium for high-tech research and aerospace applications.  By the 1990s, private demand for helium far exceeded federal demand.  The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 redefined our primary functions, making the BLM responsible for operating and maintaining the helium reservoir and pipeline system, providing crude helium gas through contracts with private companies, evaluating the nation’s helium-bearing gas fields, and providing access to federal lands for managed recovery and use of helium.

Ours is the only helium storage facility in the world, so people are often curious about how we produce and process the helium.  We frequently host visitors from other countries (including Russia, Poland, Germany, and Japan) who are interested in our operations.  Crude helium is produced from our facility at the Cliffside gas field approximately 15 miles northwest of Amarillo.  The helium is extracted from the Bush Dome, which contains helium, natural gas, and other gases such as nitrogen and methane.  We have two dozen wells that extract the gas.  The gas mixture is then run through our helium enrichment unit, which opened in 2004, where the natural gas, helium, and other byproducts are separated.  The crude helium is then delivered to private industry refiners who are attached to our 425-mile pipeline.  The pipeline runs from our plant through the Panhandle of Oklahoma to its endpoint in the middle of Kansas.  Currently, 35 percent of the world’s helium and 42 percent of domestic helium are supplied by our helium enrichment unit.

The helium organization is unique in that it is financed by a government public enterprise fund (a partnership with private industry), not by annual appropriations from Congress.  We run our operations using income from the sale of crude helium (78 percent pure) and management of the helium storage facility and pipeline.  Monies in excess of amounts needed for operations are returned annually to the U.S. Treasury to be applied against the helium program’s debt incurred in the 1960s.  Over the past 10 years, $939 million has been returned to the U.S. Treasury, paying off much of that debt.  In addition, more than $20 million per year is added to the regional economy of the Texas Panhandle in payroll, goods, and services.  

From 2005–2007, there was a worldwide shortage of helium, which brought a great deal of media attention and market pressure to our operation in Amarillo.  We fielded media calls from “The Wall Street Journal,” National Public Radio, and “Good Morning America” and visits from national and international correspondents from Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries.  We were even the subject of a joke on a late-night comedy show! 

As you can see, the Amarillo Field Office’s helium operations are not just about balloons.  Kids might be happy if all we did was keep the balloons filled, but helium has many varied and important uses that affect our everyday lives.  Helium is used for cooling the magnets in magnetic resonance image (MRI) scans, manufacturing fiber optic cable, pressurizing liquid propellants used in space shuttle launches, welding, filling balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and lastly, filling party balloons.

Leslie Theiss has been the field manager for helium operations at the Amarillo Field Office in Texas since 2004.  Prior to that, she was the field manager for the Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico and the Pinedale Field Office in Wyoming, and was also a senior fluid minerals geologist and area geologist for the BLM.