Utah's Helium Reserves May Be A Key To Strengthening US Supply Chain

May 13, 2021

Portion of geologic map showing Utah helium-rich natural gas deposits (southeastern Utah). Circles indicate known deposits and relative size. Color indicates depth, yellow {shallower) to red (deeper).
Credit Tyler Wiseman and Marc Eckels / SITLA and Utah Geological Survey

Critical minerals are commodities considered essential to our economy but with a supply chain at risk. Helium is on the list and that designation has focused attention on Utah’s potential for helium resources. The Utah Helium Symposium was held at USU– Price campus.

Because it is volatile, a global shortage in the helium market can quickly impact pricing. This affects things like broadband, automobiles, and everything using semi-conductors, from refrigerators to watches. Gary Stanley is the director of Materials Industries for the US Department of Commerce and said the uses of helium are why is important to strengthen the mineral’s supply chain.

“We recognize that helium has so many uses and applications. You can see helium is at the center when you look at the medical side, climate change, health care, the whole area of US economic growth and recovery from COVID-19,” Stanley said. “We see that helium is one of those critical minerals that can be seen at the center of that conversation.”

For the most part, helium is a secondary product from gas production. Efforts to reduce carbon fuel usage compete with increased global helium demand, and different sources are needed. That’s where Utah comes in. The state has deposits in its southeastern region, mostly on public lands.

“We have a pretty good handle on where we think things are. Potential is probably the bigger question of what can be done with it,” Bill Keech said, director of the Utah Geological Survey.

Keech says with state investment the agency could determine the Utah helium reserves. Public land leases for private industry exploration are another option.

Because Utah is close to large semiconductor markets in Phoenix and Austin there is potential to develop a more secure supply chain here. Wes Adams, assistant director for Utah’s School and Trust Lands Administration noted the value of helium could be large – as much as 100 times the value of natural gas. Steven Lund, state representative, talked about potential jobs.

“If you have the resource here, then you then you develop trucking jobs, you develop processing jobs, and that's just to get the helium in a position where you can actually sell it.”

Ben McAdams, symposium moderator, said, “It's more than just royalties. There are jobs. But the ripple effect of this is significant. And it’s not only Utah but I would say the US.”