On Jan. 25, the U.S. government sold the Federal Helium Reserve, a large underground stockpile that consists of 425 miles of pipelines spanning Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma and provides an estimated 15% to 30% of the U.S. helium supply. The privatization was mandated by the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 but had been delayed several times.
According to an article from NBC News, the deal is likely to go to the highest bidder, industrial gas supplier Messer.
Helium is the only element on Earth cold enough to make an MRI machine work and supply chain leaders at hospitals and health systems are concerned about the long-term consequences of the sale.
Soumi Saha, senior vice president of government affairs at Premier Inc., which contracts with helium suppliers on behalf of 4,400 hospitals in the U.S., told NBC News, “But we are stressing about this shortage. From a healthcare perspective, MRI machines are the No. 1 concern.”
“Shutting down the U.S. helium reserve would force a situation where we would have to increase our reliance on foreign sources, like Qatar and Russia,” Saha added. “Given the ongoing geopolitical concerns and tensions in those regions and shipping delays, it would increase concerns around potential shortages on U.S. soil.”
The article adds that “Helium was already in short supply before the government sale. Currently, Kornbluth [Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting] said, three out of five U.S. helium suppliers are rationing the element to prioritize life-or-death uses like MRI machines ahead of less-essential helium uses, like keeping party balloons afloat.”