Wyoming gas plant shutdown crimps US helium supply

September 23, 2011 - 7:00 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A shutdown of a natural gas plant that caused a significant shortage in the nation's supply of helium has ended, and production of the lighter-than-air gas used for everything from medical imaging to rocket launches to party balloons has resumed, an Exxon Mobil spokesman said Friday.

The Shute Creek Gas Plant in western Wyoming separates helium from natural gas pumped out of nearby wells and is the world's largest helium facility, producing more than 20 percent of the U.S. helium supply. Recent maintenance at the Exxon Mobil Corp. plant took longer than expected — about six weeks instead of four.

"The turnaround was extended due to additional maintenance identified during our inspections," company spokesman Charlie Engelmann said in a statement.

Production resumed in mid-September, but the delay had a negative effect on a global supply already tight from disruptions overseas, said Joe Peterson of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

"Which only means that if you need helium, you need to make some additional planning so that you have it when you need it," Peterson said.

Another market shortage a few years ago prompted Denver-based United States Welding, Inc., to stockpile helium. Those supplies came in handy during the most recent shortage, said Paul Evans, the company's Denver branch manager.

"What we did at that time was put in reserve several hundred cylinders of balloon grade and several hundred cylinders of industrial grade and we've been sitting on them," Evans said. "We basically made an investment of the gas into our cylinders."

Dipping into those reserves enabled his customers to get all the helium they need.

The shutdown also didn't come as a surprise to one of the world's largest gas suppliers, Danbury, Conn.-based Praxair, Inc., said Ben Glazer, the company's global manager for helium.

"For Praxair, it's one of many sources that we have and we coordinate very closely with Exxon Mobil and we planned for it ahead of time," he said.