The Other Strategic Reserve
Why is the US government getting out of the helium business?
“When things get too heavy, just call me helium, the lightest known gas to man.” – Jimi Hendrix
Thomas Gold was a professor of astrophysics at Cornell University and one of the most interesting scientists of the 20th century. He had a notable penchant for diving into completely new fields and developing hypotheses utterly at odds with the scientific consensus of the day. His many achievements include correcting the understanding of how the human ear works, accurately predicting that the earth’s axis of rotation flips 90 degrees every million years or so, and discovering that pulsars are rotating neutron stars. While not all his hypotheses proved out—and many took decades before being accepted as solid theories—Gold never shied away from being bold. Freeman Dyson described Gold’s work as “always original, always important, usually controversial – and usually right.”
For much of his career, Gold worked to validate two highly controversial but related ideas, both of which were presented in his 1998 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels. Gold believed that life on Earth originated miles below the surface, theorizing that photosynthesis was a late-stage evolutionary development. He also posited that methane (i.e., natural gas) is primordial, that it exists deep within the earth in vast quantities, and that it is partially oxidized when subsurface life feeds off this abundant energy resource, thus producing oil. (In other words, fossil fuels have little to do with fossils.) Gold also suggested that the biological debris found in oil was proof of an ecosystem teeming with life well below our feet. In his view, we have been surface-biased in our search for extraterrestrial life.
(This so-called “abiotic” hypothesis of oil was first developed by Russian scientists decades before Gold’s formulated his version, something he later learned of and took great pains to disclose. Their work gained little traction in the Western world—few took the hypothesis seriously and, in the pre-internet era, almost nobody was aware of it.)
According to Gold, perhaps the best evidence for the abiotic origin of oil is the strong association of helium with hydrocarbons. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe and is formed from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. It is also stubbornly inert—scientists have never been able to get helium to chemically react with anything. By what mechanism does helium come to be strongly associated with oil and gas in nature? No chemical or biological process can explain it. Here’s how Gold frames the mystery in his book:
“Regional patterns of helium abundance have been observed in which the present quantities of helium are far higher than the sediments could have ever produced from the total of their radioactive components. In these regions of helium abundance, the mixture of gases (including hydrocarbons and nitrogen) within and emerging from the earth’s crust tends to be remarkably similar over very large geographical areas, spanning even very different geological provinces. The helium therefore must certainly have come from below the layers of sedimentary rock, and it must have arrived there already in regionally well-defined mixing ratios with methane and nitrogen, so that different fields of the region could all be filled with the same or a closely similar mix. Only a mix that had entered the sediment and its individual gas fields from below could achieve that effect.”
For reasons that are beyond the scope of this piece, the near-unanimous opinion of modern geologists and petroleum engineers is that Gold’s views are, well, totally bunk. The mere mention of the abiotic hypothesis risks placing you in the category of tin-foil-hat-wearing-flat-earther, and the tone used to reject his work is often quite dismissive. Being neither geologists nor petroleum engineers, we are in no position to adjudicate the matter, except to note that scores of people we respect have rolled their eyes with a certain not-this-nonsense-again look when asked about it over the years. We liken it to how doctors must feel when patients arrive in their clinics with internet-derived diagnoses and proposed cures for what ails them. But every once in a while, the patient is a genius.
One need not hold an opinion on the matter to care about helium, a commodity almost universally produced as a byproduct of hydrocarbon extraction. Due to its extreme inertness and ultra-low boiling point, the material finds wide use in numerous vital applications. While digging down the Thomas Gold rabbit hole, we found our attention diverted to a puzzling series of events unfolding in the helium market that is as surprising as it is troubling. It is a story of an important and militarily sensitive commodity that almost everybody takes for granted, a decades-old piece of obscure legislation that is slowly draining what was once the world’s largest strategic reserve of the stuff, and the imminent ceding of market power over it to our geopolitical foes. Let’s drill below the surface and see what’s really going on.