Not too long ago, Children’s Fairyland received a call to action. And believe me, when the D.C.-based Balloon Council tells us they need our help with a “key vote” in Congress, you bet we stop everything. The issue? Helium — or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

H.R. 527, also known as “The Responsible Helium and Stewardship Act,” was up for a vote on April 26. The legislation would “help ensure stability in the helium supply by reauthorizing the Federal Helium Reserve so it can continue to operate without interruption.”

The specter of an interruption in the country’s helium supply if the Reserve is shut down is not a pretty one. A shortage of helium affects not only those of us in the birthday, graduation and special events industry, but also the thousands of scientists and technologists who rely on the stuff as an irreplaceable resource to run MRI machines and manufacture optical fibers and microchips and semiconductors for cellphones, for deep-sea divers to ease breathing conditions, for welders, and for people who run airport scanners — and of course, there’s the Goodyear blimp.

The story of how the government got into the gas hoarding business involves fears about the Germans’ Hindenburg airship, and the perceived need for rocket fuel during the Cold War, but that’s not so relevant now.

I needed more information on today’s shortage, so I went to the source. Actually, it’s the source for most of the helium sold in the East Bay, and our birthday party balloon helium supplier: Alliance Gas, whose corporate headquarters is located in Oakland.

Crude helium is a byproduct of processing natural gas liquids in the United States and liquefied natural gas offshore. From that processing, crude helium is purified and liquefied for sale and delivery. To date, extractors have been slow in developing helium supplies.

How has the helium shortage affected Alliance? Company president Marvin Rodgers III admits that it’s been difficult, but that even during the peak shortage time last summer, they were able to fill more than 90 percent of orders. Now the figure is closer to 99 percent.

Smart managing of the resource allowed Alliance not only to meet the needs of its balloon customers, but also to help essential biomedical researchers — even to help launch satellites into space. But even with these measures in place, Rodgers is unhappy that his company was unable to supply the necessary helium to the Oakland Holiday Parade balloons last year. The company had been supplying the parade for the previous five years.

Alliance’s biggest customers in the East Bay are Party Warehouse (balloons) B. C. Welding (helium is a shielding gas for welding) and Lawrence Berkeley Lab (research).

Ultimately, Congress did pass H.R. 527. So what impact will this vote have on the availability of helium?

“Helium is a finite resource that has been artificially below market value for decades.” Rodgers explained to me. “Unfortunately, with Congress’s decision to continue to supply helium, we have not addressed the simple fact that helium cannot be man-made. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Rodgers believes that the shortage will ease, but not disappear completely. New production is coming online in Qatar, and that should reduce U.S. exports to Asia and Europe, as Qatar will supply those regions. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the U.S. may help, but not much helium is produced in that process. The good news is that Russia has large reserves of helium; the bad news is that they’re located in Siberia, where it will take decades to create the infrastructure to develop those fields.

Alliance is a family business; Marvin followed his father as president. Both men believe that locally-owned independent businesses are vital to our community’s economy as large, consolidated companies continue to buy up market share and leave consumers with fewer choices.

Why Oakland as corporate headquarters?

“Oakland was one of the few communities to welcome us,” Rodgers told me. “The city realized that to have a dynamic and recession-resistant economy, all types of businesses are needed.”

Alliance services all manner of industries: welding, food processing, doctors, bio-tech, electronics, restaurants, construction and even the Oakland Athletics. Alliance also has five other locations in the Bay Area. Oakland is the most centrally located.

Rodgers acknowledged the importance of balloons at special occasions, like Fairyland’s numerous birthday parties, but points out that the balloon business represents a very small segment of helium usage. He says the largest demand is in cryogenic applications (about 20 percent), namely in the cooling of the magnets in MRI machines. (Liquid helium is the coldest liquid on earth.) “To all of sudden not have access to MRI machines to diagnose various ailments would definitely negatively impact modern medical care,” he said. More locally, helium is vital in the biomedical, solar and electronics industry, which are pillars of the Bay Area economy. “Being without helium or having to buy helium at inflated prices could easily decimate numerous businesses in our community,” Rodgers said.

After the 394-1 Congressional vote to stabilize the helium market, The Wall Street Journal called it “a relief to surgeons and birthday party clowns alike.”

­­­­­­­­Only one woman was apparently brave enough to challenge all of her other Congress members on the issue. What caused Southern California democrat Linda T. Sanchez to stand alone, in a 394-1 vote? Does she not care about all of the patients needing an MRI, or all of the kids at countless birthday parties around our great country whose hopes would be as deflated as the balloons they wouldn’t have? Her spokesperson, Adam Hudson, said the vote was unintentional, and that she plans to inform the House clerk of her support of the bill.

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