Helium shortage deflates some balloon celebrations

ablythe@newsobserver.comAugust 23, 2012 

  • Life without helium Helium price hikes and distribution shortages are affecting traditions nationwide. • The University of Nebraska says that until the gas is more readily available, it will abandon its time-honored Huskers football tradition of releasing thousands of helium-filled balloons after the first touchdown. • The International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., will not have helium balloons going up in the October event this year. Instead, the gas balloons will switch to hydrogen. • The shortage might quiet some party clowns who ingest helium from the lip of a balloon, then delight their audiences by talking in that squeaky, gas-inspired Donald Duck voice.

Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe. But party supply stores, florists and others who celebrate with high-flying balloons are feeling deflated these days by new difficulties in getting the gas.

The reasons for the nationwide helium shortage are complex, rooted in the intricacies of the global energy industry. But its effects are simple:

• Grocery stores have stopped giving free helium-filled balloons to kids.

• College sororities that once ordered many canisters of helium to fill balloons for back-to-school parties are looking for alternatives.

• Gas-filled balloons are no longer floating around as much at weddings and other galas. When decorators want balloons, many of them resort to inflating them with old-fashioned air.

“It’s kind of like the end of an era,” said Lisa Swiger, owner of Blooming Balloons in Raleigh. “At some point there’s not going to be helium to put in balloons. People are going to have to change their minds about what a balloon is.”

Charlie Jones, a retired photographer who once worked for the state Department of Transportation, likes to celebrate birthdays with balloons. On Thursday, he was at The Party Shop in Cameron Village, buying a red fire truck balloon for the birthday of a septuagenarian friend named “Red.”

Earlier in the week, Jones was at the Angus Barn restaurant in Raleigh to salute his sister on her 71st birthday. In years past, they enjoyed hoisting a helium balloon for such occasions.

“I always loved that,” Jones said. “But this year, the restaurant said they couldn’t afford it.”

Natural helium is plentiful. But the gas used for industrial and commercial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas production. Once heavily regulated by the federal government, helium production has been increasingly privatized in recent years. That has made it almost as complicated as the gasoline industry.

“The buzzword is there’s a ‘shortage,’ ” said Sharon Collins, a co-owner of Balloons and Tunes in Carrboro. “We think there’s an issue with the delivery of helium rather than a shortage.”

U.S. a big supplier

The United States produces 75 percent of the world’s helium. And roughly 30 percent of that world supply comes from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, at a huge natural underground reservoir called the Bush Dome.

That supply, according to energy officials, is fast being depleted. Some speculate the usable life of the reservoir could be over in five or six years.

“I wish it were just a pricing war,” said Joe Patterson, the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant field manager for helium in Amarillo.

In 1996, Congress moved to privatize the federal helium program, requiring that all the government’s helium supplies be sold off by 2015, according to a June report in Popular Mechanics magazine.

Though new private helium production plants are expected to start up in the coming years – a plant is projected to open this fall in Wyoming – private industry hasn’t jumped as quickly to produce helium as Congress hoped.

Because of that, consumers face spiking prices and tightening supplies.

The federal government, which sets helium prices, announced in April that enormous price spikes were coming. Now, distributors around the Triangle are surprising vendors week to week, month to month with increases.

Though businesses are reluctant to talk about what they pay their suppliers for helium, some North Carolina retailers have said a tank that once cost $75 is now more than $200.

Some stores have increased the price of balloons. Others have held off with hopes that prices will go down again.

Medicine gets first crack

Helium, with its extreme freezing and boiling points, fills a lot more than balloons. Hospitals use the inert gas to cool MRI machines. Scientists use it for cryogenics, the manufacture of silicon wafers, welding and high-energy accelerators.

Frank Campisi, general manager of Fallon’s Flowers in Raleigh, said the party industry has been feeling the pinch because medical and research facilities get first crack at available supplies.

“It’s just not as readily available as it has been,” Campisi said.

Fallon’s uses about four tanks of helium in its three stores every two weeks, Campisi said. A tank can fill at least 400 balloons.

Swiger, who started Blooming Balloons six years ago, said she hit a major obstacle in the winter when her distributor could not supply her store with helium.

She has adapted, she said, using air to fill her balloons and teaching others across the nation how to decorate reception and party halls without helium balloons.

“My understanding is we may be getting increased helium supplies soon, but the price won’t go down,” Swiger said. “It’s kind of like gas: If it goes up, it’s not going to go down again.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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