BOISE, Idaho — For several years, discussions about the worldwide helium shortage have been floating around. But it's left many in the Treasure Valley wondering if there are any effects from the shortage locally.
According to Norco, a gas and industrial supply company, the shortage is real and most suppliers are being affected. However, not all local businesses are suffering from the blowup in demand.
One of the most common everyday uses for helium is to fill balloons for parties and various events. But some people looking to buy balloons may have a harder time finding helium.
“The global shortage is real and it’s really just an issue of supply and demand over all,” said Robert Gerry, industrial executive vice president for Norco.
He said helium is not a renewable source so it's not easy to come by. Most of the U.S. supply used to come out of mines operated by the Bureau of Land Management, particularly in the southwest U.S. But, Gerry said, those mines are now diminishing so the helium supply has to be imported from countries like Russia and Qatar.
“So all the major companies that play in the helium stream are trying to secure supply for the future as well as meet current demand,” he said. “One of the ways the industry is acting, as well as Norco, is to eliminate what we might consider frivolous use, and so balloons that might be filled with helium for a birthday party, or balloons at a car lot for selling cars. We’re sort of moving away from that and putting it into more critical uses.”
Those critical uses are things like the welding or automotive industries, or even more common, the medical field. Helium is used for a variety of medical purposes, like surgeries, respiratory therapy and MRIs.
Because companies like Norco have had to shift where supplies are going, some stores like Party City are seeing the helium supply dwindle.
According to a post on Party City's website, "helium supply is very low" and "balloon orders may be affected." So the website encourages people to consider alternatives, like air-filled balloons or balloon arches.
However, not all stores are seeing the same effects. Zurcher's said it is seeing a smaller supply of helium than normal, but it's still able to stock it.
“We’re getting about half of what we normally get this time of year,” said Minda Bates, store manager for Zurcher's in Nampa.
Even with a slightly lower supply, Zurcher's said it hasn't affected business or the services it provides.
“We’ve been really fortunate in that we’re still able to get helium," Bates said. "We are seeing that we’re getting a little bit less than normal but we are still able to fill balloons, we’re still able to do a lot of other options with even air-filled balloons.”
Bates also added that while the helium supply has not been an issue for Zurcher's, some of the stores customers have had a harder time finding places that have helium.
“We hear it from other stores, we hear it from customers too who have come in, even from as far out as Payette and Ontario, and they’re saying no one in their town has helium and so they’re coming in here to get their balloons,” she said.
Gerry also said that the shortage driving up industry costs for suppliers.
“Our cost has gone up 50 percent in a 90-day period," he said. “What’s happening now is companies we might recognize such as Air Products, Linday and Praxair and those that are prime, at-the-stream source, they’ve been buying that product forward, and so companies like Norco who are interested in securing the needs of our local customer base here, we’re having to do the same thing. So we’re securing that supply but it’s costing us more money to bring it to market.”
And according to Gerry, those costs aren't expected to go down anytime soon.
When asked if the shortage had caused their prices to increase, Zurcher's said no, so their prices for customers are also still the same.
What's really up in the air at this point is what the future of helium will look like.
“Probably what the customers day to day customers going into a grocery store or flow shop or anything like that are going to see is that frivolous helium use is just going to the rise to the point it’s just not attainable. That’s sort of where the common person each and every day might see the impact on their real lives. Otherwise it goes into cost production of other products and medical care and it’s sort of hidden behind the scenes.”
Bates said the store's helium supplier expects the shortage to be short-term.
“Our suppliers are telling us that it’s only going to be about a three to four month shortage that we’re going to see where we’re going to get the limited supply of helium rather than our regular order,” she said.
Bates added that the same thing happened about five years ago. The store was seeing a shortage and a lower supply of helium for a few months, but then things went back to normal. So Zurcher's expects the same trend in this case.
Gerry however, said from an industry standpoint, Norco isn't expecting the shortage to end anytime soon.
“It’s really anticipated that this shortage is likely to go on for a number of years and then it will depend on what large streams come on board,” he said.
For example, Gerry explained, Russia is working to develop more gas wells which could amp up helium production. But that could still be a couple of years down the road. So Gerry said he considers the shortage a "mid to long-term problem."
He said some retailers like Zurcher's may not be seeing the long-term effects or costs that the rest of the industry sees but that doesn't mean the shortage is gone or that costs are going down.
“Probably what the customers, day-to-day customers, going into a grocery store or flow shop or anything like that are going to see, is that frivolous helium use is just going to the rise to the point it’s just not attainable," Gerry said. "That’s sort of where the common person each and every day might see the impact on their real lives. Otherwise, it goes into cost production of other products and medical care and it’s sort of hidden behind the scenes.”
But, he added that just because certain businesses or even suppliers may not be feeling the effects now, if the shortage continues, there's a good chance they will down the road.
“Anybody that hasn’t felt the impact today, they’re going to feel that,” he said.