Continuing Need for a National Helium Conservation Policy

EMD-81-91: Published: Jun 15, 1981. Publicly Released: Jun 15, 1981.

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John W. Sprague
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Helium is currently used for a number of scientific and technical purposes, and it may be essential to the future development and implementation of several energy-related technologies presently being researched. However, helium resources are rapidly decreasing as their most economical sources, natural gas fields, are depleted, and as uncaptured helium is released to the atmosphere through the burning of natural gas. Of further concern is the fact that the natural gas with the greatest helium content is now being produced and will be substantially depleted within the years 1990 to 1995. Therefore, GAO undertook a review to determine what action has been taken in the past 2 years to develop a national helium conservation policy. GAO had previously recommended enactment of new legislation that would redefine the Nation's helium conservation program to take cognizance of the changing needs for helium and establish the objective of conserving helium resources to meet national requirements. GAO has also recommended that the Secretary of the Interior, while working with Congress for the development of a new helium policy, undertake any steps necessary to conserve in the most efficient manner the helium from the Tip Top Gasfield in Wyoming, the Nation's largest known nondepleting reserve.

GAO found that, in the past 2 years, no significant Federal helium conservation action has been taken. Additionally, although legislation focusing on helium's energy-related uses has been introduced in Congress, none has been enacted into law. Meanwhile, helium continues to be depleted, the largest private helium extraction plant is still not operating, and very soon only one Federal plant will produce the gas. Furthermore, minimal Government and private conservation efforts have barely added to the existing helium stockpile since 1979. Although research and development funding cutbacks in the proposed 1982 Federal budget have touched on several helium-related technologies, funding for magnetic fusion, a potentially large user of helium, has increased, and the other cuts do not indicate that the ongoing Federal commitment to developing helium dependent technologies will soon end. However, the prospects for future conservation have been aided by the settlement of long-running litigation that has constantly hampered past conservation efforts. Also, the helium value litigation which has impeded conservation seems to be well on the road to settlement.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Interior has no definitive plans to propose legislation to ensure that helium is conserved for national needs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Department to develop and make available to the appropriate congressional committees its views on legislation to restructure the Nation's helium conservation program along lines which ensure long range national helium supplies.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While Interior continues to monitor development of the Tip Top Gas Field, it has no definitive plans and budget requests to conserve the helium there.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should take the necessary steps to conserve helium from the Tip Top Gasfield in the most timely and efficient manner, including preparation of a comprehensive conservation plan and related budget requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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