If you’re planning to host a party in the next several weeks, complete with helium-filled balloons, you just might want to call your party supplier and place your balloon order sooner than later.
For the past few months, there have been widespread Internet reports of a global helium shortage. If there really is a helium shortage, what’s causing it? And long could it last?
“According to our suppliers, (the shortage) is real,” said Joe Baubonis, owner of in Oak Creek. “At this particular time, it hasn’t affected our price because we were notified of this a couple of weeks ago. We’re being rationed by our supplier. So, when we take our pre-orders for balloon bouquets from our retail store, when we are out of helium we stop taking orders for balloons. We have disposable tanks in stock but we have suspended our rental tanks until further notice.”
Normally, depending on his advanced orders, Baubonis gets 6 to 8 full tanks of helium per week. Each tank will fill about 800 standard 11-inch balloons. Now, his supplier can only get him two tanks per week.
Meanwhile, , with locations in Menomonee Falls, Brookfield, Greenfield and Waukesha, is not having difficulty getting helium. So far.
“Well, we prepared for it early on,” said owner Don Bartz. “We’re actually OK. Whether it continues to be a problem for other people, I don’t know. But we prepared a bit with our vendor so that we would not run out.”
Helium, which is a byproduct in the production of natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG), is refined by a fixed number of companies in the United States. The largest U.S. refinery is operated in southwest Wyoming by Exxon Mobil. This refinery produces 20 percent of the world’s helium supply and on Aug. 1 it shut down for routine maintenance.
According to Ruttenberg & Associates, a Philadelphia sales agency that supplies retailers like Bartz’s and represents two large national suppliers of compressed gas, the Exxon Mobil refinery shutdown has put a strain on helium supplies across the U.S.
“Exxon Mobil refines a substantial amount of helium that is supplied in the marketplace on a wholesale level,” said Roy Ruttenberg of Ruttenberg & Associates. “They’re actually shut down for 60 to 90 days due to maintenance which is not unusual. There are those who think there is a limited supply right now. If demand increases beyond capacity, yeah, there’ll be a shortage.”
Refinery shutdowns like that of Exxon Mobil and a scheduled maintenance shutdown of another large refinery in Qatar in October are only part of the problem. Another factor is that it’s not currently economically feasible to tap into large underground helium reserves in many select natural gas fields around the world.
“There are a number of facilities that are either under major maintenance turnaround like Exxon Mobil and other facilities that are operating at reduced rates due to either low natural gas demand or low liquefied natural gas demand,” said John Van Sloun, General Manager for Worldwide Helium at Air Products, a large national wholesaler of helium based in Pennsylvania. “That’s what’s created the problem today, a combination of those things. It’s not just a U.S. issue. All these plants deliver helium on a global basis.”
How long the helium shortage will last, both in the U.S. and worldwide, depends on who you talk to.
“I would characterize it as a near-term issue, certainly,” said Van Sloun. “When Exxon Mobil comes back up, certainly that will alleviate a big portion of the problem and that’s expected to be back in operation within the next week or two. The pricing on helium has gone up in the past mainly due to the tightness of the market. That has driven people to do more conservation and recycling of helium, especially the larger users to try and minimize the consumption which is good for everybody.”
“In the long term there are some questions as to exploring new sources of supply,” added Ruttenberg. “It’s had a ripple affect across the country right now. There are some areas that are on allocation where the suppliers are only fulfilling 60 to70 percent of the orders placed by customers. By November or December, we should be back to normal supply situation, hopefully. But nobody knows for sure.”
Despite the factors causing the current shortage, one thing appears certain. The planet is not running out of helium.
“There’s a lot of helium,” said Van Sloun. “The issue is to be able to produce it economically. You end up relying on the production facilities for natural gas. The economics are driven by the natural gas economics, not the helium economics.”