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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Exploiting Tanzania

So a massive helium reserve may have been found in Tanzania's Rift Valley. Wonderful. All the western headlines this morning have put a typically western spin on it. Hurrah! We are saved! We get to go plunder a foreign place again for what we need to save our own lives! Before we get too carried away with ourselves, let's take a few seconds to think about a few things. Like, say, how many MRI scanners are there in Tanzania right now? How many Tanzanian lives will be saved? Anyone care to estimate? This scanner in Dar es Salaam makes headlines when it breaks down.

What about the wildlife in Tanzania? Will lives be saved there, too? Note the concentration of national parks and game reserves in and around the Rukwa region of Tanzania. Now, I'm not intimately familiar with how helium gas is extracted, concentrated or liquefied but I'm going to guess that some of it has to be done where the gas is found. Even if the gas doesn't just float conveniently into collection chambers instead of needing some sort of gas forcing process (We love fracking, right?) and miles and miles of pipelines, it's a fair assumption that there will be massive energy needs to liquefy it. Then the cryogenic liquid helium must be transported. So we'll need roads, maybe an airport for the suits to get in and out quickly, and perhaps a railway to move the product to a sea port. Or we could just push the gas down a long pipe to the coast where it could be liquefied, then transported abroad. This is all going to be great news for African nature, I'm sure of it!

I would prefer that we take our cue from the researchers quoted in the BBC article.

Prof Chris Ballentine, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, said: "This is a game-changer for the future security of society's helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away."

And colleague Dr Pete Barry added: "We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources."

Good, because taking the usual westerners' "easy out" and exploiting the far away place where nimbys don't exist (and can be ignored even if they do) is the coward's solution. Let's go find helium in the Cascades or Hawaii or somewhere closer to those who actually get to benefit from MRI, then see how we react to the extraction options.

In the mean time, here's what Rukwa, Tanzania looks like today. This is the Katavi National Park, right in the middle of the Rukwa region.

Here's what the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas looks like.

Practically twins! And finally, here's what the Rukwa mine project looks like. This is the coal mine where the coal for producing electricity in the local power plant comes from. Because we'll be needing electricity. Lots of it. Global warming shmobal warming.

 Hurrah! We are saved! MRI for westerners forever!


Update on 30 June, 2016:

I found the location of the helium reserve on the Helium One website. I estimated the location of the Rukwa Project, as it's called, on a Google map below. Many media outlets reported the helium find as being a "game changer." Freudian slip? Perhaps a game reserve changer at a minimum.

And for the record, as I hope I made clear in response to the comments from sfz, I'm not yet either for or against developing this gas field. I am against incomplete journalism, however. There are many issues that need to be addressed and questions asked from the developed countries who stand to benefit the most from this discovery.

Update on 1st July, 2016:

Looks like a new airport won't be needed. A new airport in nearby Mbeya opened in 2012 with an 11,000 ft runway. Now if we can only learn about the ways drilling might proceed with minimal impact on the game reserve. There's more science in a brief article online by Jon Gluyas, a member of of the team that developed the search methods and found the Rukwa reserve.


  1. First off: Thank you for your blog, I'm a fan! However, not of this post. You're effectively proposing a boycott to protect Tanzanians from an unfair deal. And because it's a beautiful country, we should stop them from implementing (more of) western style infrastructure? That strikes me as cynical. There surely is legitimate worry about who will benefit from this resource in a country that effectively is a one-party state. But despite all its shortcomings, globalisation came with a massive reduction of extreme poverty over the past 20 years. Tanzania is a good example: It has tripled the share of exports in its GDP and reduced child mortality by >50%. Please check out some data on

    Regarding climate change: Surely the energy demand of a helium plant would be the same whether it is in Tanzania or Hawaii. In general, US per capita emissions are more than three _orders of magnitude_ higher than that of Tanzanians! The solution can and will not be to stop increasing energy consumption in developing countries. Why should Tanzanians be any less entitled to lives benefitting from industry, electric light, or a washing machine? Changes on the demand side of things should start where consumption is insanely high and revolves around having a second SUV. An excellent resource is David McKays 'Sustainable Engergy - Without the hot air', available for free here:

    1. Hi sfz,

      I'm not proposing Tanzania does anything at all, I am proposing that those who report on the find first gather and report the pertinent information. I was simply doing the journalism that none of the coverage I saw bothered to do. This included the BBC, PRI and other respected outlets. Not one of them mentioned where in Tanzania the helium was located, nor any part of what would be involved in getting at it. Instead, it was a 7-yr supply, 1.5 million MRI scanners, we're saved. All a very self-serving, western-only viewpoint. In other words, a colonial viewpoint, imo. How you perceive my own coverage is another matter, but I'll get to that.

      Responsible journalists should have dug a bit deeper, instead they all essentially parroted the same lines. A more complete analysis is what I expect. Tanzania can, and will, do whatever it wants with its resources. I would hope that it would treat its national parks as a longer lasting resource than seven years of helium, for example. Note that it is the proximity of national parks that got my attention, not the prettiness. This fact escaped mention in the media coverage.

      Regarding the energy demand, again, because nobody dug very deeply I never heard about how electricity is produced in the country. A quick Google search located a new coal-fired plant in the region. Try doing that in Europe or North America. Again, Tanzania can do what it likes but the state of its industry is relevant to the basic reporting when one is talking about industry.

      So I agree entirely that changes should start with demand. And here the demand seems to be outside of Tanzania. I think it starts with me. I'm a customer. They don't have many MRIs in Tanzania, although I couldn't find out how many (few?) exactly. Instead of just assuming we should be able to get the 7 yrs of helium no matter what - and I think it's the assumption that we shall have your helium, dammit! that really irks me - we as the end users should ask the hard questions about its origin, alternatives, etc. The scientists in the articles went on record as stating that they believed their methods would work elsewhere. It strikes me as unlikely that other reserves won't be found given that we now have two, located in two different places on earth. As with oil, once your search methodology improves you start to find stuff all over the place. But again, not one of the news outlets reported on the methods or the possible regions they might be employed. They went for the "we're saved!" angle. Yes, perhaps we are, but let's get a lot more involved here in customer-land before we celebrate.

      And with that, thank you very much for paying attention to the topic and for responding to my blog post on it. I want to raise the consciousness, as Dennett and Dawkins put it in a video I watched last night. Even though I have a dog in the fight, as it were, I am not about to let my critical thinking faculties be shut down for selfish reasons. The next time I read about new sources of helium I expect to see far more complete investigations of the implications on extraction, not just end use. I can only hope the science periodicals set their staff a higher bar. And if Tanzania is the only place on earth with a useful 7-yr supply then I hope they charge us appropriately for it. We have a lot of MRIs here in the west, we get the benefit of MRI scans for a knee tweaked skiing. If that isn't on the demand side of the equation I don't know what is!

  2. Points well taken, thank you! A depressing detail I would like to add is that new coal plants are a reality in Europe (don't know about the US). Germany opened its most recent one in 2015

    1. Hi sfz,

      At least Germany has a big push towards renewable energy sources as well. The direction is good. In the case of Tanzania I'm most definitely not against their coal-fired power plant. In the grand scheme it's a blip! It is disappointing that they couldn't skip the dirty phase and leap directly to renewables, but there may be valid reasons to use coal in the near term. Whether they should then use coal-fired electricity to liquefy helium for export is a slightly different matter, however, and to my mind it renders that helium "dirty helium" compared to what it otherwise might be. Again, it's all up to Tanzania but we in the west should follow the entire supply chain when deciding on what and how to consume. There are no easy answers, I don't have any answers! But I can ask questions and gather evidence, then we can have a fully informed debate on the issues. (Insert Brexit analogy here...) So again, thanks for being interested in the issues, it's the biggest step towards improving things :-)