For the second time in less than 12 months, we are staring at the prospect of another global helium shortage.
While last year’s feared shortage – brought about by the rather abrupt Qatar embargo situation in the summer – was short-lived at just a three-week shutdown, this new warning appears to have the hallmarks of a potentially more sustained impact.
At the very least, it further highlights the market’s fragilities and reliance upon the BLM-operated US Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo (Texas), so soon after its exposure to geopolitical events had been starkly underlined.
At the heart of the industry is a reliance on a few mega-sources. Around 75% of all the helium consumed around the world is produced at three locations – Ras Laffan Industrial city in Qatar, ExxonMobil in Wyoming, US, and those helium refining facilities linked to the BLM Pipeline.
This is, therefore, an industry regularly at the mercy of the same old challenges; there seldom seems to be any great conviction that stability will last for long.
What does bring this new fluctuation into perspective a little, however, is the fact that a) shortages in this business are nothing new and b) those in the industry are already familiar with the fact that the clock is ticking on a new era in this market.
It has long been known that the world’s biggest helium resource, the BLM Pipeline is on a timer to depletion and that by 2020 we will face the reality of a new-look helium business altogether. The industry has been scrambling to bring new capacity online around the world and unearth innovative new means of sourcing, while end-users have been actively pursuing recovery and recycling technologies.
What hasn’t helped are delays to the significant new resources due to come on-stream and take up some of the slack, as Phil Kornbluth alludes to.
We’ll learn more about these and expected future developments in this unique business, at gasworld’s third Helium Summit in Houston, Texas this October. The event will come at a time when the industry faces a crossroads of future challenges; on this evidence, the timing for discussion and debate couldn’t be better.
Clearly, with a lessening role of that BLM Pipeline in the next two years and a market potentially tightening up again already, greater progress is required in uncovering – and being enabled to explore – new resources.