Nita Robertson has owned Santa Cruz Floral on Ocean Street with her husband Bruce for more than 10 years. But in May, she ran into something that had never come up before: when she called her local helium supplier to stock up for the graduation rush, she was told none was available. A few more calls made it clear how dire the situation actually was: none was available anywhere.
Welcome to the helium crisis.
“It’s been months since I could even get some,” says Robertson, and she’s not the only one. In fact, the U.S. is smack dab in the middle of a helium shortage. Most people don’t even realize it yet, which is why Robertson says she gets a lot of puzzled looks from party-planning locals who come in looking for balloons. Don’t blame her—or any of the Santa Cruz shops who will probably have to turn away a lot of panicking parents for the foreseeable future. The real culprit is most likely the Bureau of Land Management, which controls the U.S. helium supply under the Great Plains, and has been selling it off since 1996 (and of course Congress, which directed them to do so). It will be entirely privatized by 2015, which means the situation could get even worse, and the entire world supply could be gone in 40 years.
“We don’t even know what’s going to happen,” says Robertson. She was finally able to track down some helium, but it had “at least doubled in price, if not tripled.” The wonks at the Federal Helium Reserve are squeaking that the whole problem is being blown out of proportion, and that the current shortage is merely a blip that will correct itself. Don’t tell that to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson, who believes the gas should be going at $100 per balloon.