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Don't deflate the party

By Daniel A. Flynn, Special to CNN
updated 11:29 AM EST, Sat March 2, 2013
A balloon seller in Tokyo Disneyland in 2011.
A balloon seller in Tokyo Disneyland in 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: Daniel A. Flynn is chairman of the Balloon Council, an organization of retailers, distributors and manufacturers. He is also chief operating officer of Pioneer Balloon Company.

(CNN) -- An amusement park is usually a place of joy and celebration for children around the world. But recently, kids in Japan may have met disappointment when officials at Tokyo's Disneyland decided to suspend sales of balloons because of a temporary global helium shortage.

Despite some worries over the world's supply of helium, today's situation shouldn't cause panic.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, though it is much rarer on Earth. Crude helium is a byproduct of processing natural gas liquids in the United States and liquefied natural gas offshore. From that processing, crude helium is purified and liquefied for sale and delivery.

Helium prices balloon as supplies run out

Daniel A. Flynn
Daniel A. Flynn

To date, extractors have been slow in developing helium supplies. This means the helium supply floats, if you will, at the mercy of the natural gas market. A decrease in natural gas prices has led to lower crude helium production overseas.

Added to the reduced natural gas production, there have been problems at several natural gas production facilities, including existing facilities not operating at full production and delays in new facilities.

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This "perfect storm" between facility issues and lower natural gas production overseas has caused a shortage in helium worldwide. But like the shortage experienced in 2006 and 2007, it will pass. The situation will likely ameliorate by the end of 2013.

The world is not running out of helium. Estimated worldwide helium reserves are projected to last for 300 years at today's usage rates. Also, new plants are scheduled to begin operation in 2013.

While the temporary shortage is a call to be smart and judicious with helium use in the very short term, it does not justify the alarmist rhetoric of those who have called for an end to balloon sales.

Balloons are far from a frivolous symbol of celebration -- there are real people earning their livings from balloon sales. In today's economic climate, we need to be expanding the workforce, not contracting it.

Tens of thousands of people in the United States have jobs that may be affected by the balloon industry, including manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers.

Opinion: U.S. needs a strategy on helium

For small retailers, balloons are often an important component of the store's success, and many of these small businesses would not be able to survive without the revenue generated from balloons.

In light of the economic impact, the importance of the balloon industry must be taken seriously. At the same time, the current helium shortage calls for creativity to ensure that this resource is available for its many critical uses across the commercial, medical, electronic, fiber optics and defense industries.

That's why many balloon retailers are mixing air or other safe, alternate gases with helium to extend the supply through this shortage.

While helium users are dealing with the effects of limited supply, Congress is working on critical legislation that will continue to ensure a needed source of helium until the private sector has enough helium production to meet worldwide capacity.

Current law requires the Federal Helium Reserve operations be reauthorized after its debts are paid off, which is expected later this year. The House has introduced legislation and held a hearing in the new congressional session to find a solution that would continue the federal operation of the reserve beyond this point, ensuring stability and predictability in the helium market for a short, finite time until known plants in development start operation.

Because of the perceived helium shortage, in summer 2012, the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team planned to suspend a 50-year tradition in which the team launched red balloons into the air to celebrate the team's first touchdown at every home game. After a closer evaluation, the football program realized the shortage was nowhere near as dire. Nebraska touchdown celebrations continued throughout the season, but with a few less balloons than in years past.

Nebraska is not alone in its realization. Armed with the facts, the best policy toward helium is to recognize the supply issue as temporary and support all industry uses of helium, whether it's to provide a life-saving medical procedure, a job or a symbol of joy and celebration.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel A. Flynn.

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