DISCOVERIES OF MAGNA-TUDE

Tanzania 2018 | INDUSTRY & MINING | FOCUS: HELIUM

Despite being the second most common element in the universe, helium is in short supply on earth. With global reserves of the gas steadily dwindling, and demand steadily increasing, the discovery of a whopping 1.53 billion cbm of helium in underground chambers in Tanzania could not have come at a better moment.

In 2016, the East African Rift (EAR) dished up even more delights, with scientists in Tanzania announcing the discovery of vast supplies of helium gas emanating from volcanic activity in the region. It is believed that the helium was released during eruptions deep in the earth's crust millions of years ago, where it lay trapped in shallower gas fields, until hit upon during surface exploration in the Rukwa Valley.

Helium has a wide variety of uses, not only in the manufacture of complex products like MRI scanners, but also in nuclear research and the Large Hadron Collider. As such, new advances in technology are subsequently increasing demand for the gas. Global consumption of helium weighs in at approximately 226 million cbm per year.
The US Federal Helium Reserve, up until now the world's largest supplier, has reported remaining levels of just 685 million cbm, and prospects had been looking bleak for the helium industry. In fact, the total known reserves in the US amount to less than 4.25 billion cbm, and scientists believe that, at the current consumption rate, these could be exhausted by 2030. While demand is steadily increasing, the helium market has been volatile in recent years. During the period from 2011-2013, three years saw a helium shortage, followed by two years of oversupply due to increased production in Qatar.
Thus, the discovery of an immense 1.53 billion cbm supply of helium trapped in Tanzania's ancient crustal rocks, enough to fill 1.2 million MRI scanners, is of particular interest and will have a significant impact on the global helium industry.
Much of this excitement is also due to the fact that helium is not cheap. The price of bulk liquid helium has increased by more than 500% over the past 15 years. In 2016, the global helium market was estimated to be worth around USD6 billion. Tanzania's share of the gas has been labelled with a hefty price tag of USD3.5 billion.
Helium One, a Tanzanian-based start-up, is kicking things off after winning 4,500sqkm of exclusive prospecting licenses in four different project areas in Rukwa, Balangida, and Eyasi. In 2017, Helium One sold 10% of its shares to AIM-listed Solo Oil, and announced that its helium deposit would begin producing by 2018.
The Tanzanian Ministry of Energy and Minerals has also been gearing up to capture some of this market. After announcing that the parastatal oil and gas developer Tanzania National Petroleum Corporation (TNPC) was not capacitated to process the gas, the ministry revealed plans to form a specialized agency for the development of this new asset. The ministry also announced it would first improve local processing facilities before committing to any kind of timeframe for helium development projects.
However, there is some concern that development of helium resources in the EAR valley could provoke further land disputes between indigenous communities, in particular the Maasai, and the government. Oil and gas discoveries in the area have led to a slew of evictions in recent decades, to the outrage of both local groups as well as many in the international community. In 2010, a group of protesters, led by the UN, admonished the government for its treatment of indigenous populations in land settlement issues.
These issues may bring helium enthusiasts in Tanzania back down to earth. With many of these discoveries, the process of exploration, extraction, production, delivery, and supply, does not come without its share of thorny issues. And this process takes many—though not quite billions—of years. Experts remind us that it will be a good few years, at least, before these resources are harnessed and developed domestically for a material profit that will trickle down through the economic system.