March 4, 2008

Helium Enrichment Plant North of Amarillo, Texas, Plans Temporary Shutdown

By Jim McBride, Amarillo Globe-News, Texas

Mar. 4--The Bureau of Land Management's crude helium enrichment unit north of Amarillo will be shut down for maintenance and component replacement through March 14.

The temporary shutdown could potentially exacerbate a helium supply shortfall that began in 2006 because of spiraling worldwide demand. But BLM officials said they have coordinated the plant's shutdown with private refiners, who are prepared.

"Doing this maintenance now is optimal in terms of minimizing impacts of the shutdown," said Leslie Theiss, manager of the BLM's Helium Operations Office in Amarillo. "Demand for helium has been somewhat depressed over the holiday season and is just beginning to ramp up."

Theiss, head of the Bureau of Land Management's Amarillo Helium Operations, oversees the nation's helium reserve, about two dozen natural gas wells north of Amarillo where helium is extracted from deep beneath the Earth's surface.

During the shutdown, the agency, which normally supplies 6 million cubic feet of crude helium daily to private-sector customers, will restrict supplies to about 4.4 million cubic feet daily.

Unrefined helium from the adjacent federal helium reserve -- the only underground helium storage reservoir in the world -- supplies about 45 percent of total U.S. helium needs and a third of worldwide demand.

In 1996, lawmakers enacted the Helium Privatization Act, a law that envisioned eventually selling off the helium reserve by 2015.

The helium law authorizes the plant to offer helium for sale up to 2015. In the last few years, Amarillo's Helium Operations has returned about $400 million to the U.S. Treasury to pay debts incurred by the helium program.

The government's remaining helium storage and transportation system consists of the storage reservoir in the Bush Dome, north of Amarillo, and a 425-mile pipeline system originating at Cliffside and ending in Kansas.

The pipeline links 10 privately owned crude-helium plants and six privately owned helium-purification plants to the Bush Dome at Cliffside Gas Field.


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