Tracing Critical Minerals Genealogies through Arizona’s Emerging Helium Boom


In 2018 the U.S. Department of Interior took the unprecedented step of publishing a list of minerals deemed “critical” to national security and economic development. Alongside cobalt, uranium, and lithium, helium earned a place as the only gas included on this list. Helium is one of the rarest elements on Earth, yet it is essential to many future-facing industries, including clean energy production, space exploration, energy superconductors, and microelectronics manufacturing. After decades of federal control of the helium industry, a significant private sector is now materializing with dozens of operators speculating for helium-rich gas reserves, particularly in the Western United States. Northeast Arizona is an emerging epicenter in this helium extraction boom. However, we suggest that the sociotechnical imaginaries of the helium boom are bound to prior criticality narratives imposed on the region, particularly those that precipitated the harmful legacies of uranium and coal mining. Based on two years of research, we theorize these longitudinal relationships as having critical minerals genealogies (CMGs). CMGs implicate speculative industries that utilize criticality to forward strategic interests, regulatory agencies that must navigate criticality in forming policy, and at-risk communities making sense of criticality’s implications in daily life. We contend that CMGs brings a postcolonial lens to the replications of toxic legacies in these spaces, in order to generate a dialogue of most just environmental futures.


Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

September 9, 2021 - 4:16pm

Critical Commentary

Abstract for 4S 2021.

Group Audience

Cite as

Kirk Jalbert, J Richter and and Noa Bruhis, "Tracing Critical Minerals Genealogies through Arizona’s Emerging Helium Boom", contributed by Katie Ulrich, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 9 September 2021, accessed 20 September 2021.