Image: Candice Jeter, Cornelia Franklin
Mark Duncan  /  AP
Cornelia Franklin, right, and Candice Jeter fill balloons with helium at The Pink Gorilla, Thursday, in Cleveland. Party planners beware: a global but temporary helium shortage could deflate festive balloons this fall.
updated 9/11/2006 9:42:06 PM ET 2006-09-12T01:42:06

This gas shortage won’t hurt you at the pump, but you could find it a little deflating at your next party.

The world’s supply of helium has taken a hit because of delays in getting plants on line, U.S. officials say. Suppliers of the lighter-than-air gas have raised prices, and some party-supply stores have had to cut back on their balloon business.

A key issue in the shortage involves contracts for helium from a Qatar plant and two in Algeria that been off line, said Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. One overseas plant has been involved in lengthy maintenance and two are behind on construction schedules.

The BLM, which manages more than 400,000 square miles of public land, mostly in the West, provides more than one third of the world’s crude helium, selling it to private plants for processing.

The U.S. government has put off maintenance on its own equipment to avoid further supply disruptions, but its production will be reduced for up to two weeks in the fall so the work can take place, said Leslie Theiss, who manages the BLM office in Amarillo, Texas, the heart of U.S. helium production.

She said the problems should be resolved by November, when millions of people will enjoy a particularly high-profile use of the gas. “We’ve had questions if the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is going to happen,” she said.

Meanwhile, companies that use helium have started to feel the pinch in industries including aerospace, electronics, fiber optics, metals, medical imaging or just filling balloons.

Praxair Inc., a leading helium supplier based in Danbury, Conn., announced a 10 percent to 15 percent price increase Friday, and said Monday that supply issues, high demand and high energy costs have left it unable to handle any business beyond its regular customers.

“Given the fragile nature of the helium supply system, we are not able at this time to supply spot, backup, or unplanned volume,” the company said.

Most helium is used in industry. Inflating — “lifting” in industry lingo — represents less than 7 percent of helium use.

Several Cleveland-area party stores reported no helium supply problems, but a store in the Party Place chain warned customers with a notice taped to the entrance that temporary supply limits meant it cannot rent helium tanks used for mass inflating.

Pam Brooks, emerging from another store with balloons to promote an open house at an office-supply store, wasn’t too worried, as long as the temporary shortage doesn’t mean big price increases.

“Any kind of balloon — especially helium balloons that float around — are visual and attract attention and display a sense of fun,” she said. “When people see balloons they know that’s where the party is.”

A high-profile helium user, the blimp fleet of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, said it was concerned about price increases. About 10,000 cubic feet to 20,000 cubic feet of replacement helium is pumped yearly into the blimps, which have capacities of 170,000 cubic feet to 180,000 cubic feet.

Blimps lose more helium in hot, humid weather, said Roger Rydell, a Goodyear vice president. He said the company would not disclose what it pays for helium.

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