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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Since the 1920s helium has been an important, nonrenewable, and nonflammable gas that the federal government has stockpiled. The geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, contain helium-rich natural gas deposits, which prompted the U.S. Bureau of Mines to invest in infrastructure to take advantage of this resource for helium production. This included a Federal Helium Pipeline, constructed in 1962, a 425-mile pipeline that extended from the Cliffside Gas Field in Potter County, Texas, through the panhandle of Oklahoma, to Bushton, Kansas. The pipeline originally connected federally owned helium production plants and private crude helium plants in Kansas and Oklahoma to the Federal Helium Reserve at the Cliffside Gas Field, which is also known as the Bush Dome. One of these plants was the Bureau of Mines–operated Keyes Helium Extraction Facility in Cimarron County, Oklahoma.

The initial importance of the federal government’s helium program centered on its military uses. However, beginning in 1953 the government began to withdraw helium from the Federal Helium Reserve to meet growing demand for commercial and scientific uses. The surge in uses depleted the essential stockpile from 87 million cubic feet at the beginning of the decade to less than 17 million cubic feet in 1959.

In response to the rapid drawdown of helium resources, the Bureau of Mines devised a two-prong solution. The first was to expand production capacity at the existing Exell Helium Plant in Moore County, Texas. The second was the construction of a new plant in Keyes, Oklahoma. Discovered in 1943, the Keyes Gas Field in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, controlled by the Colorado Interstate Gas Company, contained 2 percent helium. In the late 1950s the Bureau of Mines contracted with the company to extract helium from the field. Following a $12 million appropriation in 1958, the bureau began construction and nine months later opened the Keyes Helium Plant in 1959. The facility quickly produced large amounts of helium and eased the national deficiency.

In addition to establishing the Keyes Helium Plant, the Bureau of Mines initiated a new program of helium conservation to ensure a sustainable national supply. The 1960 Helium Act established a system for storing the nation’s helium supply and incentivized private companies to extract helium from natural gas. These factors launched a regional construction boom that in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and central Kansas. Five private helium plants and an underground pipeline were built between 1961 and 1963. Four private companies financed, constructed, and operated plants that extracted helium from natural gas. The product was then sold to the Bureau of Mines and transferred to the Cliffside Field Terminal.

To transfer helium to the Cliffside terminal, in 1961 the Bureau of Mines funded a contract with the Williams Brothers Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to build a 425-mile-long pipeline between Bushton, Kansas, and Cliffside. The contractor designed the structure, acquired right-of-way for its entire length, and supervised construction. The contractor based the design on existing pipelines constructed to transport natural gas. The pipeline was buried about forty inches underground and connected ten privately owned crude helium plants, six privately owned helium purification plants, and Bureau of Mines helium production plants to the Bush Dome Reservoir at the Cliffside Gas Field.

Between Bushton and the Satanta Station in Satanta, Kansas, the pipeline is four inches in diameter, and from Satanta to Cliffside it is eight inches in diameter. From the aboveground gas-metering Satanta Station, which lies at the midpoint, the pipeline historically connected to helium production plants in Otis, Kansas, and Keyes, Oklahoma (no longer extant), as well as to the Exell Helium Plant in Texas. In addition to providing helium to private companies, surplus helium from the Exell, Keyes, and Otis helium plants was transferred along the pipeline to the Cliffside storage facility. The pipeline delivered its first helium for conservation in December 1962.

The pipeline and subsequent storage facility at the Cliffside Gas Field were integral to private helium plants in the area. The ability to store helium minimized the impacts of global supply-and-demand cycles and allowed the federal government to maintain a perpetual stockpile for federal use. The rising national defense demands relating to the Cold War and Space Race made such a stockpile increasingly important. The Keyes Helium Plant closed in 1982 following depletion of the Keyes Gas Field. In 1995 the Colorado Interstate Gas Company built a new private helium refining plant known as the Keyes Helium Company. Today, the pipeline remains active and supplies gas demands for scientific research, medical technology, high-tech manufacturing, space exploration, and national defense.

Justin B. Edgington


“History and Historic Structures Inventory of the Amarillo Helium Plant and Excell Helium Plant, 1928–1996,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999.

Clifford Winslow Seibel, Helium, Child of the Sun (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1968).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Justin B. Edgington, “Federal Helium Pipeline,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FE020.

Published November 8, 2023

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