Helium shortage may deflate upcoming celebrations

ST. MARYS – The next birthday party or wedding you attend may not have the typical bunches of balloons present to mark the celebration-- a current shortage of helium means there may be nothing to fill them up with. Local stores that sell helium balloons say suppliers have told them there is currently no new supply, and they may not be able to get more helium until mid-September or even beyond.Steve Cleveland, owner of Ridgway and Johnsonburg BiLo stores, said while the stores still have some helium left, they are using it to fill balloon orders already accepted and that they will not take any new orders until they can get more helium. He said he learned about the shortage through his locally based wholesaler, and that when more helium does become available, it will most likely go first to more critical uses, particularly medical equipment. "There’s too many of us in this world, and the world market is so sensitive, and it’s a supply-and-demand thing. They’re going to take care of the hospital side of it before they take care of blowing up of balloons. And I can understand that," Cleveland said. "We probably won’t be in the helium business until supplies are available again." Cathy Swanson, a clerk at H&A Hardware in Ridgway, said the store is not out yet, but is “getting kind of close.” “We do have some left,” Swanson said.Suzie Witherell, an employee at Lily in the Valley Flower & Gift Shoppe in Kane, said the business is also close to being out of the balloon-lifting gas. "As soon as we run out of helium, that’s it. We’re not doing it until we can get more," Witherell said. "All of our suppliers said that they can’t get us any. And we can’t get it at the price we got it at before, either." Even larger stores that sell party supplies and have locations nationwide, such as Dollar Tree and Walmart, are experiencing difficulty obtaining helium for their balloon customers. "Not right now - we don't have it. We've been out of helium for months. We've been trying to work with our home office to find out. We have not yet heard [what will happen]," said St. Marys Walmart Manager Randy Cole. "We can't even pump up our own balloons anymore for clearances and things."Some people may question why there is currently a helium shortage, as it is the second most abundant gas in the universe. Although that is true, helium is also a nonrenewable resource. In outer space, the element is created by stars throughout their life and when they explode as a supernova; on terra firma, it a byproduct of natural gas production. Since most of the helium produced in space is also absorbed by space, the only viable way to get more of it is to look to the earth. And therein lies the problem: With natural gas production down, there is less helium produced, creating a shortage. An old law is causing part of the problem, according to experts. In 1996, Congress enacted a law ordering that helium reserves be sold at prices lower than the market rate. The policy was enacted to repay approximately $1.4 billion in debt incurred from paying drillers to retrieve helium following the creation of a federal helium extraction program in the mid-1920s. The government established the reserve at that time because it was exploring the use of blimps and similar airships for military purposes. The Federal Helium Reserve was established in the 1960s in an 11,000-acre gas field encompassing parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The large supply of premium helium there is trapped underground along with the gas.Pick up a copy of the Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.