Helium prices ballooning
By Mark Wilcox
January 9, 2013 --
Floaty balloons aren't as cheap — or as readily available — as they used to be in the Equality State.
Dee Aldridge, owner of Party America in Cheyenne, said the continued shortage of helium has been creating unique problems for his party-supply store for two years now. In early 2011, his helium supplier of about 15 years cut off his supply abruptly and completely.
"The industrial-grade helium is used in the science and medical industries," he said. "That all gets first priority over the balloon industry."
With the air of an inside tip, his supplier referred him to another person that could help him continue to fill balloons. That person, along with one other supplier, continues to supply his store with the lighter-than-air gas that can make a balloon float and a voice squeak. Aldridge considers his suppliers a company secret while the world experiences the helium shortage.
"I don't want to sound like I'm being selfish," he said. "but the helium industry is very tight still and expected to remain tight."
That has caused some tightening at Aldridge's business, as well. Since 1996 when he opened Party America, the price for a standard helium-filled latex balloon has more than doubled.
"Our helium has basically doubled ... in price easily," he said, indicating price increases since the shortage began in 2011. While his long-term prices have doubled on helium balloons, the short-term prices haven't ballooned nearly as fast as helium prices themselves. He said he makes less profit at $1.09 per balloon than he did at 50 cents per balloon in 1996.
"If I raised prices to reflect helium prices that I've incurred, I probably wouldn't sell too many balloons," he said.
Aldridge said he is fortunate to have maintained some helium supply for his balloons, as he knows some party-store owners in neighboring Nebraska have periodically had to stop selling helium completely as people higher on the helium chain lift supplies from those lower on the ladder.
While seemingly grateful he has never been completely out of helium in Cheyenne, Aldridge is aware of his lower link on the supply chain.
"It is arguably much more important to keep an MRI machine running than to supply a helium balloon to a customer," he said.
Keeping an MRI cool with liquid helium is only one use for the nonrenewable resource. Though it is the second-most abundant resource in the universe, supplies of the inert gas are finite on Earth. Scientists use helium to heat or cool wafer boards because of its nonreactive properties as an inert gas. Helium helps boost NASA rockets into space. It aids in particle physics research to help study quarks, among other things. It is used to aid laser eye surgery and also used as a gas shield for arc welders. It can be applied to grow germanium crystals, push air-to-air missile guidance systems and help cool nuclear reactors. It is so versatile that one researcher calls it one of the "world's most important gases."
"And they're putting it in party balloons," said Ian Harvey, Associate Director of Utah Nanofab at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
When Harvey found out it was harder and more expensive to find party balloons, he expressed his sentiments on the matter succinctly.
"It's about time," he said. "Every balloon you fill, that helium's gone forever."
Aldridge conveys cautious optimism about the future for helium. He said new plants like one that will come online this year near Big Piney and at least one other major international one could shift helium supply in a positive direction. The Wyoming plant made news last summer as it had a close brush with the Fontenelle wildfire, shutting down preparation for a time.
But analysts expect the Riley Ridge facility near Big Piney, to be operated by Denbury Resources Inc. out of Plano, Texas, to supply about 10 percent of the world's helium when it is operational, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Denbury, however, declined to provide figures.
"Unfortunately we don't provide production guidance," said Ernesto Alegria, Denbury's public relations contact.
He did say in an email that the helium production is expected to go live by the middle of this year and that they already have a contract in place with Air Products — a multinational corporation that recorded upwards of $9.6 billion in sales in 2012 — to buy all the helium it can produce on the property. Beyond that, he had little to add to the discussion.
"We unfortunately are not able to speak about helium supply and demand and the effects on Denbury," he wrote.
When Denbury's facility comes online, it will be one of only two producing helium in the state. Right now, Exxon Mobil Corp.'s LaBarge-Shute Creek facility is the only one contributing to the global helium supply. And its numbers have held relatively steady, according to Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission statistics. The plant generally continues to produce about 120 million cubic feet of helium per month, though production in the third and fourth quarter of 2012 faltered to below 100 million cubic feet some months.
"Helium isn't one of the commodities that we track real closely," said Bob King, interim director of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. However, King said the commission does recognize the importance of the element.
"I think the world demand for helium is increasing because of the need for electronics with respect to computers," he said. "The supply is not able to keep up with demand; it's not a matter of supply [dropping.]"
All of this is likely to keep balloons harder to fill, computers harder to manufacture and welds more expensive to make, but many, similar to a helium balloon, seem willing to rise to the challenge.
Wyoming Business Report Staff Writer Mark Wilcox will be disappointed if he can never hear himself sound like a chipmunk again due to the ongoing helium shortage.