Our helium is running out. It is a critical resource for things like MRI scanners, and the government is essentially throwing it away.
I bought my own body-volume in helium today, for essentially zero bucks.
Well, I have written a lot about this elsewhere, so here's it all condensed in one place for people to argue with.
The question presupposes that only serious use is "important", and that a resource being finite is a reason to legislate its use. I believe both of these to be false.
We waste petroleum on the fabric of the balloon, and at every step in its production, and yet that too is a finite resource.
Gold is a finite resource, but you see gold being used in some expensive foods, and in jewellery, and on MP3 player headphone plugs, as well as in "important" applications such as the electronics in hospital machines.
In fact, all resources are finite. Some are more or less finite. This establishes their market value, which in turn establishes how much casual fun you can afford to have with them based on your budget. Most of us do not have "gold plated cheeseburger" in our budget... but some people do, so the product exists and can be bought.
There are at least 25 years of viable reserves using current technology, at the current pricing levels, so it's an issue, but not as big a deal as many other things.
Concern peaked back in 2013 when the US was producing 75% of the world's helium and the Federal Helium Reserve was threatened with closure (I think the US government did a very silly and shortsighted thing here, and I cannot fathom their reasoninng.). More recently, though, the FHR has been saved (at least until 2021), and some say there is now an oversupply because of increased reserves and output abroad.
It was only in 2016 that people found a viable way of prospecting for the stuff, rather than relying on accidental discoveries while prospecting for oil. Using this they have already discovered a new resource in Tanzania, containing 54Bn cubic feet (about 6.4 years' worth).
There are also many other known sources (ginormous reserves on the moon, for example), but these will require the price to rise and technological advances before becoming viable. This is the same as petroleum, where fracking only relatively recently became economically viable... but with the technology perfected, it remained viable when the oil prices fell again.
Like all non-renewables, the price of helium is governed by the laws of supply and demand: the price peak back when people were worried, meant investment could be channeled into opening new reserves, and labs and factories could invest in helium recycling technologies so we now use less of it for the same things.
While there have been issues in the supply chain (fluctuating prices, helium rationed for military and medical purposes) this was largely due to US government interference than any rational reason.
If there were an immediate, tangible threat, the suppliers could crank their prices sky-high - and they did in 2013. The government can also implement rationing - which they did.
But today, my local Walgreens had life-sized stormtrooper helium balloons for about the same as you can buy them uninflated.
Sadly, I don't see lunar mining happening before the turn of the next century, though if helium becomes *that* expensive, it might well become profitable before that. [As an aside, this possibility needs only to become a little more likely for it to become a moral imperative for us to use up helium in order to push lunar mining into reality. Lunar mining would essentially create an orbital elevator made of cash: with the round-trip cost to the moon made profitable, the cost of getting up to the moon would become effectively zero.]
Considerably more likely is that the earth-based equivalent of tar sands will happen: currently non-viable earth reserves will be used as they become more viable because of rising prices.
My sentence above, "like all non-renewables" could perhaps have be expanded into its own post. No other non-renewable resource is recoverable either. That's sort of the point of the term. You can't (economically) recover gold from sewerage, for example.
As a naive way of gathering a list of non--renewable resources that are currently threatened, that is, stuff we might someday run out of, I compiled this list of the things that Google will autocomplete with, given the phrase "are we running out of AA" (replacing a with any pair of letters):
... I could have continued through the alphabet, but we're ;ess than a fifth of the way through and that last word of the 'e's seemed too good a stopping point :)
There is a good case that we are "running out", by some measure, of just about all of these things. And it's a little sobering to think that at some point someone probably asked "are we running out of dodos/quagga/tasmanian tigers/passenger pigeons?" They may even have asked the same question about several of the 60-plus species that were declared extinct in 2014 alone. And yet we still "ran out", because nobody really cared or was making money from them.
So not only is there a good case, but there's a good precedent that we DO globally run out of at least some non-profitable resources.
But of the vast number of resources we might run out of, I'm relatively sanguine about helium. It's in our sights, it's not going to quietly go extinct without us noticing, and without a very sizable period of "not cheap helium" preceding it.
Animal species endangerment is ranked on a scale, which I rather like because it makes very clear where we're at: Extinct; Extinct in the wild; Critically endangered; Endangered; Vulnerable; Near threatened; Least concern; Data deficient; Not evaluated.
Helium would be somewhere around "near threatened" - meaning, "likely to become endangered in the near future". It's one of the lucky ones, as people are aware and working on the problem, so it probably won't die out.
Helium won't be one of those that goes silently from "Not Evaluated" to "Extinct".