Helium production begins at Harley Dome site east of Moab
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Oct 24, 2013 | 6255 views | 0 0 comments | 70 70 recommendations | email to a friend | print
IACX Energy began helium production last month at the Harley Dome field in eastern Grand County. The project site is located just north of Interstate 70 approximately 70 miles east of Moab. Courtesy photo
IACX Energy began helium production last month at the Harley Dome field in eastern Grand County. The project site is located just north of Interstate 70 approximately 70 miles east of Moab. Courtesy photo
Helium plays an important role in modern life, so it might come as a shock to learn that the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in developing new supplies of the precious resource.

Scott Sears was one of those people who never gave the issue of looming helium shortages much thought.

“We all had a moment in the recent past where we went, ‘Helium?’” he said during an Oct. 22 interview.

But the threat of a plunge in domestic supplies led to a rise in helium prices, and that increase was certainly enough to catch Sears’ attention.

In mid-September, his company, IACX Energy, began helium production at its third such facility, and its first in Utah: Harley Dome.

The helium field in far eastern Grand County was discovered in 1925, and the find was so important that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt set it aside as “Federal Helium Reserve No. 2” in the early 1930s.

However, the site’s unusual characteristics proved to be too challenging for earlier generations of developers, and the land stood vacant until IACX came along.

The BLM signed a Decision Record and Finding of No Significant Impact last spring, paving the way for IACX to begin constructing its facility. The Grand County Council unanimously approved a required conditional use permit for the project on April 2.

Harley Dome joins a handful of other privately operated helium production facilities in the U.S., most of which are located in Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.

But it’s the only one that is located on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property. The gas it produces is also unique in the sense that it’s not a byproduct of natural gas production.

“This is the first helium-only facility on federal lands,” Sears said. “We’re producing this as a primary constituent, and that’s a first.”

According to Sears, the Texas company uses a non-toxic pressure swing adsorption process to recover helium from the site, which is located about 70 miles northeast of Moab near the Utah-Colorado state line.

“There is no chemical reaction, and there’s nothing unseemly [about the extraction process],” he said.

The overall project, he said, is designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment.

The company delayed its production kick-off date until raptor chicks flew away from nearby nests, and IACX built its tanks on metal skids, as opposed to concrete pads, Sears said.

“These are meant to be temporary plants,” he said. “The environmental impact is minimal … When we leave, you won’t even know we were there.”

Right now, the facility operates as a one-man show. But Sears said he sees a strong potential to add new facilities – and more jobs – in other parts of helium-rich Grand, Emery and San Juan counties.

“We hope that that grows,” he said.

There’s certainly no shortage of demand for helium.

With the lowest melting or boiling point of any element, the lightweight, stable and non-toxic gas is a priceless ingredient in high-tech products, including MRI machines and fiber-optic cables.

It’s an effective heat conductor, which makes it invaluable to space shuttle operations and particle physics research. And even though it’s a natural byproduct of radioactive decay, helium itself won’t become radioactive, so nuclear power plants use it to cool their reactors.

Despite the ongoing demand for helium, few domestic supplies have been tapped in recent years.

According to Sears, that’s partly because the federal government maintained a virtual monopoly on domestic helium production throughout most of the 20th Century.

“It was controlled by the federal government for so long that people didn’t have a vested interest in it,” he said.

Congress initiated market reforms in 1996, but Sears noted that its actions had unintended consequences.

“It dumped all of this cheap helium onto the market for years,” he said.

Now that it’s in relatively short supply, though, prices are increasing.

“It’s not only very scarce; it’s very valuable,” Sears said.

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