In the last few months, one particular piece of economic news has sent fear of price hikes into the tech, health care, and party-supply sectors: a new worldwide shortage of helium. In response, some leaders in those areas have put pressure on the US government to release helium from its national reserve.
For many people hearing this, there’s something even stranger than the cost of balloons being affected by worldwide economic shifts: the fact that the US government stockpiles helium at all. The Federal Helium Program dates back to the 1920s, when helium was a military asset. It has persisted due to political protection and, more recently, sales of the gas to private manufacturers.
Helium turns out to be just one of a wide array of massive American national stockpiles, many of them as massive as they are obscure. The best known, the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve, stashes nearly 700 million barrels of crude oil (worth about $64 billion at current market prices) in caves along the Gulf Coast. Small portions of the reserve are occasionally sold off in periods of high gas prices.
On the surface, federal stockpiles might seem like precisely the kind of program that cost-cutters hate: They tie up billions in unused resources, provide no social services, and can’t be deployed on a battlefield. They’re also huge distortions of markets. The US stockpiles nearly one-third of the world’s entire supply of helium, for example, and on the rare instances when the White House has released oil from the petroleum reserve—a move President Obama is reportedly considering right now—repercussions are immediately felt across the globe.
But in an election cycle that has entailed endless debates over the government’s proper role in the economy, these programs have gone almost entirely unmentioned. They’re also a point of agreement among economists, a normally disputatious bunch: “I think there’s also pretty broad consensus among economists that it’s a good thing,” said Blake Clayton, an energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The point of a federal stockpile is to insure the nation’s crucial goods against a catastrophic drop in supply or spike in demand, which might arise from a natural disaster, a strangling of trade, a war, or any number of other dire situations. As such, the federal stockpiles embody a spectrum of things humans worry about losing: oil in case of an embargo, helium to fill our dirigibles (or, more seriously, to use in guidance systems for air-to-air missiles). Fort Knox stockpiles 147.3 million ounces of gold as a financial bulwark. A more diffuse and secretive cache called the Strategic National Stockpile—jointly operated by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—holds the federal government’s tools for dealing with Armageddon scenarios: anthrax vaccines, antitoxins for botulism, drugs to flush radioactive material out of the body, and much more. The Strategic National Stockpile’s size, locations, and exact contents are undisclosed.
The Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, located in a complex outside of Knoxville, Tenn., holds more than 100 tons of uranium and came under fire for its security standards in August after three antiwar activists—including an 82-year-old nun—broke in, carrying only bolt cutters, hammers, a Bible, binoculars, flashlights, bread, and flowers. There’s also the Northeast Home Heating Oil reserve, which maintains roughly 1 million barrels of fuel within the country’s most populous cold-weather region.
The US is not alone in its hoarding habit. At least 40 countries stockpile petroleum; many more have gold reserves. India, with its big textile industry, is building a cotton reserve, and China is storing up rare-earth metals—a major export, given their use in high-tech equipment—as an economic insurance plan. China is also reported to have a 200,000-ton pork stockpile and a 50-million-ton wheat stockpile, although its government keeps details under wraps. Many nations maintain food stockpiles in the event of a famine: Russia reportedly has a top-secret food reserve in a nuke-resistant complex beneath the center of the country. Somewhat more poetically, Quebec keeps a strategic maple syrup reserve—because of syrup’s key role in the Quebecois economy—which made headlines recently when thieves pilfered millions of dollars’ worth of the stuff.
One country that doesn’t have food reserves is, oddly enough, the United States. We did until the 1990s, when they were gradually sold off to prevent interference with food prices. Yet even here, the government retains a massive tool for market intervention: a $310 million trust of cash set aside to buy goods from farmers in the event of an emergency either here or abroad. In a way, this program—called the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust—is the most flexible stockpile of all: a fat bank account.
If stockpiles haven’t triggered much controversy, it may partly be because they’re obscure, and partly because they do one thing that everyone agrees government should do: protect us from the unknown. Federal stockpiles are “an area in which government is working decently well, even though there’s no popular outcry demanding it, or any polls,” said Steve Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
By that same token, if the stockpiles are too strange to spark controversy, there’s also very little political upside in promoting them. “I guess you could say, if some time in the future, there was an anthrax attack and we had no anthrax vaccine, whoever happened to be president at that time would probably be in some political problem,” Kelman added. “But in this election, the fact that Obama has put money into an anthrax vaccine reserve gets him zero votes.”