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The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve
TABLE 4.1 Refined Helium Sales Between 1966 and 1996 (bscf/yr)
U.S. private sector
SOURCE: Figures for 1966, 1976, and 1986, Campbell (1988) and for 1996, Peterson (1997).
Helium Reserves and Resources
The United States is the world's largest producer of helium. Table 4.1 summarizes U.S. helium sales over the last four decades. The two most important sources of helium in the United States are the Hugoton-Panhandle field complex, which is located in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and ExxonMobil's LaBarge field, which is located in the Riley Ridge area of southwestern Wyoming. Most production from the Hugoton-Panhandle complex is connected to or could be connected to the BLM helium pipeline and Cliffside storage facility near Amarillo, Texas. Approximately 2.8 billion scf (78 million scm) of helium was produced from this area in 1996, 2.2 billion scf (61 million scm) of which was sold and 0.6 billion scf (17 million scm) of which was stored in the Bush Dome reservoir. ExxonMobil's Shute Creek processing plant produces approximately 1.0 billion scf (28 million scm) from the LaBarge field, with the remaining 0.2 billion scf (5.5 million scm) coming from other facilities in Colorado and Utah.
ExxonMobil's LaBarge gas field and Shute Creek gas processing facility in Wyoming was originally designed to process approximately 480 million scf (13.3 million scm) per day of natural gas; it entailed an investment of approximately $1.5 billion. The field and processing facility currently produce around 650 million scf (18 million scm) per day of natural gas, with an anticipated upgrade expected to increase the capacity to approximately 700 million scf (19 million scm) per day. Gas produced from the field is 66.5 percent carbon dioxide, 20.5 percent methane, 7.4 percent nitrogen, 5.0 percent hydrogen sulfide, and 0.6 percent helium. The processing facility produces carbon dioxide (for enhanced oil recovery projects), methane, elemental sulfur, and helium. At peak production, the facility could produce as much as 4 million scf (110,000 scm) per day, or 1.4 billion scf (39 million scm) per year of helium.
Although the rate of return on investment has been disappointing, it is clear that ExxonMobil expects the facility to be profitable throughout its projected lifetime. Investments in equipment upgrades (including the helium processing facility) and well drilling in order to maintain deliverability are planned to continue. It was clear to the committee members who visited the facility that the facility is being operated in a manner consistent with ExxonMobil's stated goal of another 50 years of operation.
Helium is produced in small quantities outside the United States. Algeria produced about 0.5 billion scf (14 million scm) of helium in 1998. Much smaller amounts of helium are produced in Russia and Poland, China, and parts of Africa. Although the helium content of the native gas produced at the Algerian facility is only 0.17 percent, economics are favorable since