At a time when helium supply would be ample if the major sources were operating normally and helium markets are anticipating a significant influx of new supply from Gazprom’s Amur Project by the end of the year, a series of unplanned outages has temporarily disrupted supply and caused renewed concern about shortages.
Three recent events have removed supply from the market during the months of June and July. The Skikda, Algeria plant shut down in mid-June and is expected to be out of operation through at least the month of July, due to problems with the LNG plant which provides feedgas for the helium plant. This outage removes 300-400 million cubic feet (MMCF) of annual capacity from world supply. At around the same time, the Keyes Helium plant, which is one of the four helium liquefaction plants connected to the BLM (US Bureau of Land Management), went down due to a broken turbine. This removes 100 MMCF+ from the market and the time required for repair could be several months. More significantly, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) shut down its Crude Helium Enrichment Unit with minimal notice on 1st July, to address safety issues. The BLM continued to allow withdrawals of crude helium from its crude helium pipeline until the pipeline pressure declined to 600 PSIG on 19th July. After this date, crude helium withdrawals will not be allowed until the plant restarts and pipeline pressure recovers.
While the BLM’s outage was originally scheduled to last through the end of July, cases of Covid-19 at the BLM’s facility delayed its work plan and are expected to extend the shutdown through to at least mid-August. With normal deliverability of crude helium into the BLM pipeline of 2.3 MMCF per day, this removes up to 800 MMCF of potential capacity from world supply – not counting the loss of helium produced from current natural gas processing. While there was some slack in the market prior to these outages, there was not enough to absorb the loss of more than 1 BCF of annualised supply. As a result, the helium market will be experiencing a supply deficit until the BLM resumes operation.
With the BLM system down, there is very little flex capacity available. Tumbleweed Midstream’s Ladder Creek Plant has excess liquefaction capacity and has the ability to increase tolling activity and helium production; Air Liquide’s storage facility in Gronau-Epe, Germany can also provide some flex capacity. Although spot market activity and prices have perked up due to the current tight supply, Kornbluth Helium Consulting does not expect recent events to have a significant impact on contract prices, as long as the tight market conditions are relatively short-term. These latest incidents do provide a reminder, however, that even though the demand shock caused by Covid-19 ended Helium Shortage 3.0 early in 2020, the helium supply chain continues to be fragile, with limited ability to respond to significant plant outages.
Hopefully, the current plant outages will be resolved and the balance between supply and demand will be restored within the next couple of months.