Numerous challenges in helium exploration


A decade’s worth of news stories on helium shortages and prices have led to a migration of oil & gas exploration and production companies (E&P) into the helium development space. For any newcomer, there is plenty of romance with helium. Its scarcity, rising prices and high-tech applications have caught the eye of explorationists, large and small. In 2001, I was lured in.

While the topic of ‘helium upside’ is an attention grabber, the actual execution of a successful helium project is challenging at best. Helium refinement from native gas is neither simple nor cheap, even when things go according to plan. And when actual gas volumes or compositions fail to meet expectations, difficulties arise. The following are a few things that I’ve learned over the years.

First a backdrop. Most helium consumed today is produced as a by-product of large-scale natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facilities where volumes, pressures, reserves and duration of each are known inputs. All natural gas contains at least some helium, though some areas more than others. Where a large, centralised processing facility exists, the decision to build a helium plant bolt-on is not difficult. Of course, these helium sources will be affected by the demand for the primary commodities, typically methane and/or carbon dioxide (CO2). And with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) pipeline and storage system entering the final stages of its lifetime, opportunistic E&P companies look to helium projects that are primary in nature and that are less dependent on other commodities.

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