Workers prepare the Spongebob Squarepants balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.
Fourth of July parades all over the country are being forced to ground their helium balloon floats and find alternative methods of enlivening their parades due to a global helium shortage.
The city of Fremont's Fourth of July parade organizers are making the best they can with the absence of the 11,000 cubic feet of helium they would need to float the bald eagle, American flag and birthday cake balloons that were reserved for the parade, according to Fremont Fourth of July Parade President Jesse Schaa.
Instead, a 20-foot Yogi Bear balloon with a built-in motor will be paraded along with two Uncle Sam hat balloons that will be carried by parade participants, Schaa said.
"We ordered balloons that are flat-bottomed and can be carried on trucks and trailers and are not scary-looking," Schaa said. "There were not too many patriotic ones (balloons) that were flat-bottomed, but these were the cutest ones that can be filled with cold air," he added.
Party and parade balloons are not given a high priority to helium access during shortages.
Medical facilities, government agencies and the military get priority rights on helium usage, according to owner of Oakland's Alliance Gas, Marvin Rodgers, whose company provides the helium used in many Bay Area balloons and floats.
The top helium buyers are the U.S. military and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Schaa said. Schaa recalls a previous helium shortage in 2010 that sparked rumors of the Macy's Parade being cancelled.
Because of the public outrage, President Obama released more helium from the natural gas reserves, Schaa said. Newspapers on the East Coast had headlines hailing Obama as the savior of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he added.
The current shortage is because of a decrease in natural gas production across the globe, Rodgers said. Helium is a byproduct of natural gas production.
Helium production is a complex market. Helium was produced exclusively in the U.S. at the helium reserve in Cushing, Oklahoma until 1996 when helium production shifted to countries such as Qatar, Algeria and Australia which operate at lower concentration levels than the U.S., Rodgers said.
The biggest producers of helium in the U.S. are Exxon Mobil, which had a partial shutdown at its Wyoming plant in June, and is only now coming back online and the Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau runs a pipeline through southwestern states such as Oklahoma and Texas, which was also closed for land maintenance, Rodgers said.
According to Rodgers, there is a new helium operation coming this fall to Wyoming that will draw on the same natural gas wells that Exxon Mobil uses. There is also a new facility in Qatar coming online, Rodgers said, adding that when both of these facilities are running it will restore the balance to the supply and demand for helium.
However, that still leaves many parade organizers scrambling to find a source for helium for their parades.
"We tried companies we have used for the last couple of years," Schaa said. "We even tried calling Nevada and Arizona, but they are not releasing any gas anywhere, even my friend who is organizing the parade in D.C. can't get gas for their parade."
Because of the shortage of helium, the price for an existing supply has increased exponentially according to Ray Pulver, a parade producer based in the Bay Area working on the Fremont Fourth of July Parade and the Oakland Children's Parade in December.
"If I could have gotten helium it would have been double what we paid last year," Pulver said. "I tend to see the trend that when gas prices go up, helium prices go up, although I don't know if they are related."
The Fremont parade organizers still expect their event to be successful with 80 entries to the parade, which is themed "Celebrate America," and will include a tribute to the troops and the Tuskegee Airmen.