Worldwide shortage of gas is causing problems for area stores

Last updated: September 30. 2013 11:50PM - 2754 Views

Dom Bartoli, owner of Balloon Works by Party Zone in West Pittston, inflates a party balloon for a party.
Dom Bartoli, owner of Balloon Works by Party Zone in West Pittston, inflates a party balloon for a party.
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When people say there’s a national helium shortage, they’re not just pulling that statement out of thin air.

Just head to the Federal Bureau of Land Management’s Federal Helium Program website and the proof is as clear as the inert noble gas itself.

In a question-and-answer section on the site, the question of whether there’s currently a worldwide shortage of helium is answered with “Yes. The current global shortage of helium is real. In the simplest terms, the shortage is based on rising demand outpacing supply.”

And while helium is used for many important functions, including the aerospace industry, military uses, computer chip and optical fiber manufacturing, and varied medical uses, the most recognized use for the gas is filling decorative balloons.

Anna Wadas, co owner of A & M Floral Express in Wilkes-Barre, said the shortage has been going on for a year but has really been felt in recent months. As of early last week, she had enough left in her tank to meet the contractual obligations of one more party and that’s all.

“I may be out for the year,” said Wadas, who said he’s already had to turn away potential clients and likely will lose more than $1,000 in balloon business this year alone. And, she adds, she was already paying more than double for a tank this year than she had last year.

The Bureau of Land Management, which operates the helium program and maintains the only government helium storage reservoir and pipeline system in the country in Texas, says production is currently at its maximum output of 5.8 million cubic feet per day. In 2012, production from the Federal Helium Reserve was 2.1 billion cubic feet, while total domestic sales volume was 4 billion cubic feet.

An even larger crisis with the helium supply chain has been avoided.

The U.S Senate voted recently to keep the federal’s helium reserve operational was 97-2.

Without congressional action, the program would have shut down on Oct. 7.

“The impending shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many U.S. industries and disrupt national security programs,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

The House version of the bill passed in April and now awaits a compromise agreement, though the production will continue.

But for Dom Bartoli, the avoidance of going over what he called “the helium cliff” is not an end all, be all.

“I don’t think the shortage issue is over,” said Bartoli, owner of Balloon Works by Party Zone in West Pittston. He said one crisis might have been averted, but there are still pricing issues, supply-and-demand concerns and ties to the natural gas industry that play a major role in the entire scope of the helium supply chain.

He has seen the price of helium more than double over the past year, and he has also seen dozens of balloon and party supply stores go out of business over his 23 years in the industry.

While Wadas has had trouble getting helium in stock, Bartoli has not, but the rising costs have been passed along to customers and that has hurt business. He has seen more and more events that had historically used balloons, from fundraisers to office parties to school events, veer away from that practice.

“People cut their budgets and the first thing to go are the balloons,” Bartoli said.

Even with the helium supply not being cut off, the high-price trend is likely to continue, he predicted, meaning that while getting the gas might be easier, keeping customers happy might not be.

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