Unbeknownst to most people, helium is a finite, nonrenewable resource. All of the world’s helium is obtained from pockets of trapped gas under the earth. Helium cannot be manufactured in laboratories using reasonable methods, and helium that escapes into the atmosphere remains there, but cannot be recaptured in significant quantities with any presently known technique. The United States has long benefited from some of the Earth’s largest helium deposits, but the Federal government estimates that all major US in-ground helium deposits will be exhausted by 2015. The only option that will be left after that point will be trading for helium on the international market.
For many years, in recognition of helium's rarity, the United States government maintained a Federal Helium Reserve much like the Federal Oil Reserve. However, in 1996 a pro-business Republican Congress pushed through the Helium Privatization Act, directing the Bureau of Land Management to stop producing helium and to sell off the government's stockpile into private hands by 2005.
Today Russia has some of the world's largest remaining helium deposits. However, many these reserves are being squandered. Helium is usually mined in conjunction with natural gas, since helium and natural gas deposits usually occur together, but helium capture requires additional equipment, and helium is not a very profitable commodity, so many Russian companies simply keep the natural gas and allow the helium to escape into the atmosphere where it is effectively lost forever.
In the near future, Qatar will become the world's leading supplier of helium. The small Arab nation controls an estimated 25 percent of all remaining helium reserves, and is only just starting to exploit them, although the Qataran government has plans to aggressively pursue increased helium output, doubling production by 2010.
It would be difficult to argue that helium is essential for human life. Nevertheless, helium has a wide variety of useful applications, especially as an alternative to hydrogen in lighter-than-air travel (such as blimps), and in science experiments where its unique properties have many uses, including fiberoptic cooling, magnetic resonance imaging, and, whistling superfluid gyroscopes. Not to mention those helium balloons we all grew up with.
Enjoy sucking on those helium balloons while they last...