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Party balloon store closing 45 outlets due to lack of helium. Let’s hope they stay closed.

We have been on this case forever. Why are we wasting such a valuable resource?

Imagine twenty years from now, when aging baby boomers are being wheeled into the radiology departments and being told that the MRI machine is out of order because they ran out of helium. They will say, “My kids deserved party balloons!” Or, for that matter, your iPhone costs twice as much because semiconductor manufacturing depends on helium. Or your kids are stuck up on Jeff Bezos' giant donut in the sky because there was no helium, often used to clean fuel tanks on rockets. There are so many critical uses for helium with so few possible substitutes.

Kermit© Mario Tama/ Getty Images

That's why we have been complaining for years about its frivolous use in party balloons and Thanksgiving Day parades. A decade ago helium was cheap, the price artificially low because the American government was selling off its strategic reserve at a fixed price, not needing it for its dirigible fleet. Companies like Party City sold helium balloons by the zillions, but it is now, according to Buzzfeed, closing 45 stores due to helium shortages. On their website, the company explains:

Helium supply has always been a little up in the air (pun intended). With only three sources producing 75% of the world's helium, any disruption causes a significant impact. Currently, helium supply is very low while demand is growing… Because of this global helium shortage, fulfillment of balloon orders may be affected at your store. We’re working to replenish the helium at the affected stores as more supply becomes available.

Those three sources are the US government's strategic reserve, which has cut back on sales of helium and will run out in 2021; Qatar, which is cut off because of Middle East politics; and ExxonMobil in Wyoming, which is closed for maintenance, while other sources have been delayed coming online. Meanwhile, according to consultant Phil Kornbluth,

…the strong global economy experienced during the last few years gave rise to renewed growth, especially in the rapidly growing Chinese market (especially in electronics) and the large US market. A spike in demand from the aerospace segment and growing electronics demand have also contributed to demand growth. While helium demand growth might only be a few percentage points worldwide, that is a very significant increment in a tight market.

Helium production is tied to natural gas production.

There have been shortages before, and supply is expected to return to “normal” by 2021, when a new Qatari field opens. According to Gasworld,

Qatar currently supplies around 30% of the worldwide helium demand. All Qatari helium is sourced from its natural gas production as an associated product, along with popular condensate, propane, butane, naphtha, and sulfur. It is not commonly known that Qatar holds a helium reserve of about 360 billion standard cubic feet (bscf), equivalent to more than 50 years of the present global demand – making it likely to hold a position as the foremost global exporter of helium throughout the next decade.

But the key point is that almost all helium is a byproduct of natural gas production. So if you believe that we have to stop fracking, leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop producing so much natural gas, then you are going to be dramatically restricting the supply of helium.

Some believe that we can have a hydrogen economy by stripping it from natural gas and capturing and storing the carbon, in which case we can continue to have an ongoing supply of helium. If you think this is a fantasy, then it is time to stop frivolous uses of helium, to ground Kermit, and save it for the MRI machines.

Party balloon store closing 45 outlets due to lack of helium. Let's hope they stay closed.

Why are we wasting such a valuable resource? Where will it come from if we don't drill for natural gas?