Dodoma — Tanzania plans to create a giant state-owned helium entity - an establishment separate from the giant mining holding firm, the Tanzania Petroleum Development Company (TPDC) - which apparently doesn't measure up to the powers that both domestic and global companies dealing in helium gas wield to date.
As a result, TPDC is now to keep off helium gas business altogether. Nearly a year after researchers discovered the game-changing rare helium reserves within the Rift Valley, the state announced it would create a national helium company charged with overseeing licensing, exploration, extraction and production.
With critical global shortages of the rare element, Energy and Minerals Minister Prof Sospeter Muhongo told an annual workers' meeting here that, "we need a specialised company" to oversee the entire business. He barred the TPDC from further engagement in helium business, describing the petroleum state-owned firm as too "incompetent and incapacitated" to venture into helium.
"TPDC is not done with oil and natural gas exploration and production ... (so) it wouldn't deal competently with helium," he said, urging the national petroleum firm to concentrate on its key responsibilities. Established under the Public Corporation Act No. 17 of 1969, TPDC is a national oil company and licences holder for energy development in the country.
Prof Muhongo expressed concern that the Corporation had been diverting its interest into the (helium) element by stopping Helium One, the exploration company that had teamed up with UK scientists to discover its massive reserves, in the first place.
The research team estimates that just one part of the reserve in the country could be as large as 54 billion cubic feet (bcf), which is enough to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. The discoveries at one reserve are as twice the US federal helium reserves currently estimated at 24.2bcf.
"TPDC should deal with oil ... not helium," the minister emphasized. An energy ministry official said TPDC was planning to license Heritage Tanzania, an oil company, to venture into helium just after Helium One was stopped by the same authority to conduct seismic surveys.
The minister was worried that if urgent measures weren't taken, the country would not benefit from the massive helium reserves. He directed the commissioner for minerals and the permanent secretary responsible for minerals to fast-track work with Helium One on exploration and production pending establishment of a national helium agency.
The Permanent Secretary, Prof James Mdole acknowledged that a number of investment projects had been taking "... (too) long because of poor supervision." "There are already internal consultations between ministry officials and experts on the exploration and production of helium and ... we expect all plans will go as expected," he said.
Helium is best known for filling party balloons and making people talk with a squeaky voice. But its properties as the second-lightest element, chemically unreactive, and with a boiling point just four (4) degrees above absolute zero, give it an essential role in a range of cutting-edge scientific applications.
The biggest uses are in cooling the superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners; facilitating the manufacture of semiconductors and fibre optic cables; and, purge and pressurize the liquid hydrogen/ oxygen propulsion systems used on space rockets.
With a prospecting licence across three project areas within the country, Helium One discovered nearly 100bcf of rare helium deposits, enough to meet six times the world's demand for the gas.