The Continuing U.S. Helium Saga

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Science  24 Feb 1984:
Vol. 223, Issue 4638, pp. 789-792
DOI: 10.1126/science.223.4638.789


Helium, resident in relatively high concentrations in certain natural gas fields in the United States, can be lost to the atmosphere when the natural gas is burned as fuel. In 1960, Congress amended the Helium Act of 1925 to provide for stripping natural gas of its helium, for purchase of the separated helium by the government, and for its long-term storage. In 1971, after about 28 billion cubic feet had been stored, the purchase program was terminated by the government, an action that unleashed several lawsuits and not a little acrimony. After more than a decade of controversy, much of the litigation has been concluded, much of the helium that could have been saved has been wasted to the atmosphere, and the gas fields supplying the helium are almost depleted. A new rich source of helium has been discovered in southwestern Wyoming that could ensure adequate supplies for many decades if an appropriate new federal policy on helium is developed and implemented.