WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas has been a major producer of helium for more than a century. But that may be ending.
The Wichita Eagle reports (http://bit.ly/vYlfws) the federal government took over helium production in the gas fields of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and western Kansas decades ago. But the fields are close to exhaustion, and the supply there is expected to last until 2020.
Today, the federal Bureau of Land Management operates a large extraction plant north of Amarillo, Texas. It remains one of the largest sources of helium in the world.
Every year it is mandated by law to supply 2.1 billion cubic feet of a gas that is 78 percent helium to six private refiners along a pipeline that runs from Amarillo to southwestern Kansas. Those privately-owned plants refine the crude gas to pure helium and sell it, said Leslie Theiss, manager of the BLM operation.
But the fields are already losing pressure.
"It's expected to last until 2020," she said.
Helium is produced by just seven countries: the U.S., Algeria, Canada, China, Qatar, Poland and Russia. The U.S. produces and consumes by far the most of any country. And most of the U.S. production comes from the BLM operation.
But that may be changing.
Phil Kornbluth, executive vice president, Global Helium, at Matheson Tri-Gas, said a couple smaller plants, one in Wyoming and another in Algeria, will be added next year, and a large new refinery will open in Qatar in late 2013. That, he said, should push supply comfortably ahead of demand at least until closer to 2020 when the Amarillo plant is projected to close.
He said his best guess is that as less helium is pumped through the pipeline into Kansas over the coming decade, there will be consolidation among the six helium refineries in the area.
And with that, Kansas may exit the helium era.