Exploring the Forgotten World of Helium in the Light of Recent Blimp Developments: Part 1
El Paso Airport Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Amex Platinum, I pillage an upgrade from Grayscale Blob to black Maserati. California plates. Looks to be about 6-7 years old, maybe more. It still proudly advertised its SD card reader, sagged in places, ghetto like, and of course reeked of cigarettes just like every other rental car on Earth.
The Maserati turned heads for a while and it reached 140 without protest, but the thing about a Maserati sedan is that it starts to look like a Nissan Altima as the layers of road dust accumulate, especially when it’s black. So where in El Paso I couldn’t park at a Walgreen’s without loiterers asking questions—”where ya even get that thing serviced out here?”—by the time I reached Amarillo only the valet was kind enough to offer “sir, by the way, I love your vehicle.”
Whether or not this helped or hurt my larp as a savvy, high-powered helium buyer, I will never know.
The Yellow City
Amarillo, Texas: helium capital of the world. A speakeasy in the basement of Marriott's exciting new Autograph Collection™ Barfield Historic Downtown Hotel. You pull a knob on an old-timey cigarette machine and the door swings open. Buy rare whiskies for oilmen.
I’ve been told this is where the oilmen hang out and sure enough, here are two. A sales lead and his young protege. Sweat wicking golf polos tucked into khakis, a little hair gel. It’s a Tuesday night. At around our seventh esoteric scotch—each upwards of $40—it becomes apparent that I’m not buying for them, they’re buying for me.
I love oilmen, who are today called “members of the Oil and Gas Industry.” It’s always written like that—Oil and Gas. I knew a few in law school, even dabbled in it myself. We were lured to Houston with promises of $160k first year salaries, “something like $330k in New York City!” Today’s oilmen—who are in reality mostly natural gas men—are smart and wealthy, but go to great lengths to cut low key profiles. Rich and understated, a unique blend of city and country, gentry and HVAC guy. They remind me of NFL coaches—beefy, focused, intentionally devoid of style, and violently allergic to the notion of sharing anything, money or opinions alike.
Amarillo reflects the dichotomy of the oilman. There’s a nice side of town and a grimy side of town, and you get the sense that the oilmen frequent both. If the inside of a Wal Mart Superstore had neighborhoods, Amarillo would be its East Village. There’s real money and real taste here. They don’t gawk at the Maserati like the rest of West Texas. They drink Super Tuscans and espresso with seltzer sidecars, but it’s still “the most affordable small city in America.” I heard British accents discussing “the South Africa Proposal” at the wine bar, but also got hammered on a Tuesday with a couple guys who sell glorified pipe fittings.
I press the oilmen on helium sales. Like every Oil and Gasperson I speak to, they’re weirded out. Bewildered that there’s a local helium trade at all; no idea that 15 miles away half the world's helium sits trapped under an impenetrable canopy of brown dolomite, waiting to be sold by the federal government to who knows who.
And why should they care? Helium is an afterthought, literally child’s play, a pedestrian noble gas rarely considered. It’s not traded like a real commodity. On no options or futures exchanges. It’s not even clear how to buy it wholesale, as I’ll soon learn. These guys are here for natty gas, not some sideshow.
I drove here from Marfa through the Permian Basin—Midland, Odessa, Lubbock—and I can tell you that this part of West Texas is squarely, firmly, the Gaslands, where everything regards and references the process of sucking hydrocarbons out of bedrock. Burning flare stacks, drills, and derricks the megafauna of this Serengeti. The public highway feels like an access road, every other car a lifted white pickup with yellow beacons. The roadside diners have syrup derricks on their signs. Helium once fit quite well in this milieu, but is now forsaken.
There was however a time when helium had all the potential of its cousin, or more accurately its parent, natural gas. It was helium that put Amarillo on the map. Had things gone a little differently, helium could’ve been a premier global commodity and Amarillo a global city. A few rotting homages to this hope still dot the landscape: an extremely concentration camp-esque abandoned helium plant on Helium Road, and the extremely post-apocalyptic Helium Time Columns Monument which declares Amarillo the Helium Capital of the World. The National Helium Reserve in Amarillo was established by an act of congress in 1925. Then in 1961, Amarilloian Jack B. Kelley invented the Jumbo Tube Trailer, which was finally able to efficiently transport helium—the “escape artist”—around the world.
Today, Amarillo still controls more helium than any place on earth. The Operation Formerly Known as the National Helium Reserve includes Cliffside Gas Field, the world’s largest helium refinery, and the Bush Dome, the world’s largest helium reserve, containing around 40-50% of all the world’s helium. These are all now in the process of being auctioned off by the federal government pursuant to The Helium Privatization Act, Clinton-era legislation that mandated the sale of our helium in the name of reduced government. Anonymous companies have submitted sealed bids for the Reserve, which will be opened on November 15th, 2023. Put simply, the United States is about to auction off half the helium and helium-related capital in the world, that is if a lawsuit freshly filed by Air Products doesn’t prevent it.
But someone forgot to tell the locals about any of this. The young salesman—22, Hollywood handsome, former high school quarterback—is suspicious. He calls his dad, a successful wildcatter, who confirms my story. He pulls out a map and a pin drops on the Bush Dome. “Crazy,” he says, pointing a half inch north, “I’m from the Panhandle, just right here, have never lived anywhere else, and I had no idea that was there.”
Nobody seems to realize that a century ago silly little helium was supposed to become America’s top gas.
The Gas that Would be King
Helium, the second element on the periodic table. The second most abundant in the observable universe. Its yellow (amarillo) spectral signature first witnessed by astronomers in 1868 in a beam of eclipse sunlight. Thought to be essentially non-existent on Earth until 1905 when Americans found it in the ground.
Today, small amounts of helium are used in MRI machines, superconductors, arc welders, and to grow the crystal in silicon wafers. But back then it was every bit as exciting as black gold. For a half century after discovery, the world was addicted to it. The “Airship Era”—dirigibles, blimps, zeppelins—is almost entirely forgotten today, but people in the 1920s didn’t imagine a future of planes and automobiles as much as luxurious air trains, air cars, and air cruises. They used airships to get everywhere and the helium for all of it came primarily from Amarillo. War also required airships, both sides used them extensively in WWII, which is why the feds have controlled our helium reserves until now.
There's a global helium perma-shortage because it’s impossible to store. Above ground, it escapes through the seams of steel tanks. The only way to keep it down is to trap it in excavated salt caverns, and Cliffside figured this out first. Helium from the whole country flowed to Cliffside and was stored in the Bush Dome.
Helium, Helios; it seeks the sky, belongs there naturally. It lifts our bodies like it lifts our voices. Easy, open airship travel cuts far above cramped, stressful airplane travel. You float along peacefully for several days, a cloud cruise with beds, bars, coffeeshops, live music. Modern blimps max out at around 80 mph, but you’ve got 100x the space of airplanes. They travel at only 10,000 feet, which means you can open the windows (surely the spread of global disease would be reduced if we traveled in blimps). Literally float on air. Breathe in the stratosphere. Examine the sunset up close. They dock at the top of iconic buildings; passengers step down into penthouses in the center of destination cities. Airships are in every way, besides time, preferable to sucking down coughs in a carbon blasting fart dart.
Before crashing in New Jersey on May 6th, 1937 the Hindenburg made 10 trips across the Atlantic. It was designed to fly with helium, but due to U.S. helium export restrictions, the Germans filled it with the other option: hydrogen. It had just completed an unremarkable 60 hour journey across the Atlantic, but got stalled over New York due to a storm.
It approached its destination, Lakehurst Naval Station, and attempted to execute a “flying moor” maneuver, a higher mooring procedure than usual, but it got screwed up: the hydrogen somehow caught fire, its tail exploded, fire shot out of its nose, and it fell to the ground. Even though only 35 of 97 passengers died (much better odds than an airplane crash) the Hindenburg Disaster was caught on camera. For American propagandists, it was the perfect chance to embarrass uppity Germany. More so than an actual disaster, it was a media fiasco—the origin of the memetic idiom “oh the humanity! ”
It was perhaps the biggest single PR disaster in world history. Many say that the Hindenburg effectively ended the Airship Era overnight, although airship experts point out that the airplanes would’ve eventually edged them out for cost reasons.
I was sent to Amarillo by BlimpDAO
to find information about the auction of The National Helium Reserve. Who might buy it? For what price? Who will the buyer sell the helium to? Will China make a bid? What impacts will this have on efforts to bring blimps back?
BlimpDAO is an Urbit-affiliated DAO. Nobody knows what either of these things are, and I’m not going to explain them now, but suffice to say both are Silicon Valley alt-darlings for similar reasons. Both seek to bring about a calmer, more pleasing, and more comfortable kind of human connection. Both work against the establishment by building networks of counter-elites. Both obsess over packets flying through the air.
BlimpDAO, however, is not without an establishment link. Blimps are making a comeback, in large part because Google founder Sergey Brin has invested $250 million to “darken the skies ” with airships once more. His enthusiasm is contagious. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled a “crazy visionary” planning a global blimp race—the World Sky Race . AIRSHIP Journal founder Alan Shrimpton spoke at the Sovereign House popup at Urbit Assembly. And word on this street is a Spanish regional airline just invested in a fleet of 20 blimps for connecting flights to Malta.
The purported purpose for all this is environmental. No statistics should be believed, but data says blimps use 90% less carbon than airplanes. This is mostly lip service. The real reason blimps are back is that blimps are beautiful and airplanes are hideous; certainly the motivating factor for BlimpDAO, which foresees itself as both a promulgator of blimp culture, upstream from blimp politics (like the legislatively forced sale of Cliffside Field), and, on a more practical level, as a potential OEM for BrinBlimp and BrinBlimp-adjacent projects.
Thus I’m on a sort of corporate espionage slash gonzo mission; to promote BlimpDAO, to make connections, and to find information about the auction of the National Helium Reserve and helium generally. Not as a journalist, but as a participant. I’m pretending to be a Maserati-driving helium buyer reporting to a mysterious tech company, but I also am a Maserati-driving helium buyer reporting to a mysterious tech company. I don’t see how you could do real journalism any other way. As soon as you say you're a journalist, you’re not getting the real story anymore. Plus you deserve to die.
To fit in, I tucked my button downs into jeans, which puts all Texans, even in Marfa, at ease. When in conversation, I leaned up against walls and clutched my non-existent belt buckle, the Texas version of smoking a cigarette. Here, as everywhere, you want a uniform that places you obviously in one of several recognizable categories. If you’re not in a category you will be invisible. Mine was well-fed, suitcase-dragging, iPhone-shouting businessman. In the Gaslands, you should always look like you’ve just finished a day tour of an oil refinery, and are ready for a whiskey or twelve. I tried to always be damp and dusty—important to weigh oneself down with liquids and solids so you don't evaporate.
I began my mission in El Paso, crossed all of West Texas, dipped down to Terlingua, attended a music festival in Marfa, bisected Midland-Odessa, through Lubbock and up to Amarillo. I visited helium sites, including a hostile Oil and Gas dive bar and an actual operating helium refinery, which slammed the door in my face. I met with feds at both the General Services Administration and the BLM - Helium Operations Office and got threatened by an angry shift manager at Kinder Morgan. I spoke with the “crazy visionary” behind the World Sky Race and got drunk with oilmen. Mostly, I got stonewalled on who, how, and how much the National Helium Reserve is going to sell for, which is a story in its own right.
But like any good non-journalist, mostly what I did is press the gas pedal on the Maserati, look at stuff, talk to people, and arrive at absolutely zero conclusions besides that West Texas is a hell of a place to take a drive.
Coming Soon Part 2: The World of West Texas