Using available data, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 306 billion cubic feet of recoverable helium is presently within the known geologic natural gas reservoirs of the United States.
This work could not have been done without assistance from the Bureau of Land Management’s Federal Helium Program and access to their internal datasets and reports. Thanks to John Hamak, Dave Driskill, and Joe Peterson from the Bureau of Land Management for help understanding and updating their gas compositional dataset and internal datasets and reports; their assistance was critical in this effort. U.S. Geological Survey colleagues helped with the initial dataset work, including Joseph East, Kristin Dennen, Ryan Creitz, and Hossein Jahediesfanjani. Thanks to helpful reviews from Matthew Merrill, Rama Kotra, and Jenna Shelton, which improved the report immensely.
The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 (Public Law 113–40) directed the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to create an accounting of the geologic helium resources of the United States (U.S. Congress, 2013). Helium is a nonrenewable resource that is produced from the subsurface, typically in conjunction with other gases. These coproduced gases are either hydrocarbon rich, inert, or a mixture of the two. Unlike other USGS natural resource assessments, which have focused on undiscovered resources, this assessment is an estimate of the volume of producible helium currently remaining in known gas accumulations within the United States.
Most of the helium concentration data used for this assessment are from data generated by the Federal Helium Program—a program that was established in 1925 under the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) and which, since 1995, has been administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As part of their work under the Federal Helium Program, researchers collected and analyzed data on the geochemical composition of gases produced from hydrocarbon wells to identify potential sources of helium. Their analyses were reported in several publications, including Moore and Sigler (1987), Hamak and Sigler (1991, 1993), Hamak and Gage (1992), Sigler (1994), Hamak and Driskill (1996), Gage and Driskill (1998, 2003, 2005), and Driskill (2008). Additional unpublished data from the program that reside in an internal BLM database were made available to the USGS for this assessment. These Federal Helium Program data were supplemented with additional gas compositional analysis data from the USGS Energy Resources Program’s Energy Geochemistry Database (EGDB) (U.S. Geological Survey, 2019a). The helium concentration data sourced from the Federal Helium Program, and the EGDB are available in tabular format in Brennan and others (2021) and as an interactive map in U.S. Geological Survey (2019b). Additional well location data and reservoir property data were obtained from other sources, including the USGS Comprehensive Resource Database (CRD) (Carolus and others, 2017), the IHS well database (IHS Markit Ltd., 2019; formerly IHS Inc.), and internal BLM reports and datasets. The USGS CRD was created from the Nehring Resource Group’s database of hydrocarbon reservoirs (Nehring Associates, Inc., 2012), from the field-level production and well-count data in the well database developed by IHS Markit Ltd. (2019), and from several other sources (Carolus and others, 2017, p. 3).
How the Data Were Compiled
The commonly accepted cutoff for commercial viability of helium recovery and processing is a gas containing 0.3 mole percent helium (National Research Council, 2010). Gas reservoirs with 0.3 mole percent helium are typically referred to as “helium-rich” reservoirs, whereas those with lower concentrations are referred to as being “helium-lean” reservoirs (Pacheco, 2008). To prepare this assessment, data on the individual gas reservoirs shown to have at least one helium concentration value of 0.3 mole percent or greater (sufficient to be considered helium rich) were culled from the Federal Helium Program and the USGS EGDB gas compositional value datasets. Isolating the data for the helium-rich reservoirs enabled the assessment to focus on the most likely candidates for helium production. There were 1,217 reservoirs that met the criteria of having at least one helium concentration value equal to or greater than 0.3 mole percent, and for these reservoirs, a total of 4,543 helium concentration analyses had been conducted.
The culled list of 1,217 reservoirs and their respective helium concentration data were merged with reservoir data to compile a composite dataset that includes all the required data parameters for the assessment. These parameters are (1) the original volume of gas in place, (2) the recovery factor that indicates how much of the original gas in place could be produced, (3) the total volume of gas produced to date, and (4) the concentration of helium in the produced gas. The bulk of the reservoir data for this compilation step are from the USGS CRD (Carolus and others, 2017) and the BLM internal databases. Linking the helium concentration from individual wells to the reservoirs in the CRD and the BLM internal reports and databases was accomplished using data from the IHS well database (IHS Markit Ltd., 2019). The IHS well database also was used to obtain gas production values for reservoirs not included in the CRD or in BLM reports and databases as well as more recent production data for the reservoirs that are included in the CRD and BLM sources. Of the 1,217 reservoirs from the composite dataset, 481 reservoirs and a total of 3,127 compositional analyses had matching information for the original volume of gas in place, the recovery factor, and the total volume of gas produced to date. These 481 reservoirs represent approximately 2% of all gas reservoirs from significant petroleum fields in the United States. This study uses “significant petroleum fields” to mean fields with a known recovery (the sum of cumulative production and proved reserves) of 500,000 barrels of oil equivalent (3 billion cubic feet of gas) or more (Nehring Associates, Inc., 2012).
To assess the volume of remaining helium in the identified reservoirs, it was necessary to estimate the volume of recoverable gas and the concentration of helium in that gas. To determine the volume of the recoverable gas, the following equation was used:
If the original gas-in-place values and recovery factors for a given reservoir were not reported in any of the available databases but the annual gas production values were reported, then the volume of recoverable gas was estimated using decline curve analysis of the annual production volumes (Fetkovich and others, 1996).
To determine the volume of recoverable helium remaining in each reservoir, the following equation was used:
For the statistical analysis used to create this assessment, a Monte Carlo simulation was selected because it allows one to enter ranges instead of fixed values for each component of the equations (Blondes and others, 2013). Using ranges of values for the inputs and outputs of the equations instead of fixed values helps account for the uncertainties inherent in geologic data. Because the input values are ranges, Monte Carlo simulations produce outputs that are distributions rather than fixed values, and the resulting assessment is therefore fully probabilistic. This assessment used ranges of helium concentration data and recoverable gas data from the 481 reservoirs for which all the data required to populate the Monte Carlo simulation were available.
The mean volume of recoverable helium in the United States is estimated to be 306 billion cubic feet (BCF), as shown in table 1. In terms of the helium-resource regions proposed by the BLM (fig. 1), most of the recoverable helium is from the Mid-Continent region, which has an estimated 156 BCF of recoverable helium, by volume, and the Rocky Mountain region, which has an estimated 148 BCF; the other regions together account for less than 2.5 BCF. There is also less than 3 BCF of helium present in the Federal helium reserve at Cliffside field near Amarillo, Texas (Peterson, 2021); however, this volume of helium is not included in the assessment results.
Table 1.Estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2020 of national totals for recoverable helium resources from known natural gas reservoirs, by Bureau of Land Management-proposed helium-resource region.
[P5, P50, and P95 are probability percentiles and represent the 5-, 50-, and 95-percent probabilities, respectively, that the true resource is less than the value shown. The terminology used differs from that used by the petroleum industry and follows standard statistical practice (for example, Everitt and Skrondal, 2010), where percentiles, or fractiles, represent the value of a variable below which a certain proportion of observations falls. Resources in Hawaii and federally owned offshore areas were not assessed. BCF, billion cubic feet; —, no resources identified]
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For more information about this report, contact:
Energy Resources Program
U.S. Geological Survey
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192
Publishing support provided by the Reston Publishing Service Center.
Brennan, S.T., Rivera, J.L., Varela, B.A., and Park, A.J., 2021, National assessment of helium resources within known natural gas reservoirs: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2021–5085, 5 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20215085.
ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Title||National assessment of helium resources within known natural gas reservoirs|
|Series title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Publisher||U.S. Geological Survey|
|Publisher location||Reston, VA|
|Contributing office(s)||Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center, Geology, Energy & Minerals Science Center|
|Description||Report: vi, 5 p.; Data Release|
|Online Only (Y/N)||Y|
|Additional Online Files (Y/N)||N|
|Google Analytic Metrics||Metrics page|