Not surprisingly the bottom line cause is government price regulations which distort supply and demand. Popular Mechanics reports:
(ht Troy Christensen)
One of the most abundant elements in the universe is getting harder to come by.
Helium goes into a lot more than balloons. Because the gas is inert and has extreme melting and boiling points—both near absolute zero—scientists use it in cryogenics, high-energy accelerators, arc welding, and silicon wafer manufacturing. A severe reduction in the availability of helium could force hospitals to replace costly MRI magnets or restrict patient access to them.
The federal government, which sets helium prices, announced in April that helium prices would spike from $75.75 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) in FY 2012 to $84 per Mcf in FY 2013. (Last year, prices rose only 75 cents.) This price spike, along with uncertain federal policy (and a peculiar industry setup to begin with), is threatening to create a shortage. Here’s what’s going on...
Under the federal system, those prices are unstable partly because they have less to do with supply and demand than they do about the need for the government, under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to pay off the cost of creating the Federal Helium Reserve, according to David Joyner, president of Air Liquide Helium America, who testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May. Helium prices were set by the BLM based on the amount of the remaining $1 billion debt the government incurred after it purchased its helium stockpile in 1960 and how much of that reserve was left.
"Because the original base pricing of federal helium started at below market levels, the BLM, at the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, is now making unpredictable increases to adjust for the base pricing up to market levels and to incorporate additional fees for costs that are specific only to the operation of the BLM reserve," he told the committee. This irregular pricing, he said, "drives up the price of helium for all consumers, not only here in the United States, but also around the world whenever the BLM crude price is adjusted."