ered that the gas contained primarily nitrogen but also almost 2 percent helium. Further exploration revealed that a number of the fields beneath the Great Plains contained significant percentages of helium that could be extracted relatively easily. It was quickly realized that helium’s buoyancy and relative inertness, particularly when compared to the intensely flammable alternative, hydrogen, made it an ideal lifting gas for military airships. Consequently, during the 1910s the United States, through its Bureau of Mines (BOM), contracted for the construction of three small experimental helium production facilities in Texas.

Although World War I ended before helium from these facilities could be used in the war effort, the U.S. Navy immediately began a program to develop rigid air-ships and by 1921 had built a full-scale helium production plant near Forth Worth, Texas, linked by pipeline to the Petrolia gas field, an early source of helium-rich natural gas. Several years later, Congress enacted the Helium Act of 1925 (1925 Act), formalizing the importance of helium and transferring operation of the Fort Worth production facility from the Navy to BOM. The 1925 Act declared helium a critical war material, tightly controlled its production, and curtailed exports.

Several more plants went into production shortly thereafter, including a unit near Amarillo, Texas, fed with natural gas from the nearby Cliffside field. World War II saw dramatic increases in helium production to support lighter-than-air naval reconnaissance aircraft—dirigibles flown by the Navy to locate and protect its convoys from enemy submarines and warships. By the end of the war, five helium plants were operating at full capacity.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the cold war initiated yet another major expansion of the federal helium program, with helium then being used mainly for rocket development and in scientific research. In 1960, as part of those efforts, Congress amended the 1925 Act to accomplish two things. First, it gave natural gas producers incentives to separate helium from natural gas and sell it to the federal government. Second, it established that a partially depleted dome reservoir in the Cliffside gas field (referred to in this report as the “Bush Dome Reservoir”) would serve as a helium depository to build up a strategic reserve of helium. The incentives caused several private oil and gas producers to enter long-term helium purchase agreements with BOM and to build five helium extraction plants in the most promising natural gas fields in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. The existing pipeline for helium was significantly extended to link those plants, running from the Bush Dome Reservoir to Bushton, Kansas, over 400 miles away (as described in Box 1.1, its current manifestation is referred to in this report as the “Helium Pipeline”).

By 1973, it had become apparent that demand for helium was much less than the amount that private parties and the remaining government facilities were supplying. At that time, BOM had accumulated 35 Bcf2 of crude helium in storage (see

2

The units used in this report for volumes of helium are listed in footnote 4 of Chapter 1.



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