The House overwhelmingly passed legislation on Friday to sell off helium from a federal reserve in Texas while demanding a fair price for it, a seemingly arcane bill that exposed a global shortage of the second-most abundant element in the universe.
The 394-1 vote now sends the bill to the Senate.
It is intended to protect the country, if not the world, from a damaging dearth of helium that could derail key medical and scientific innovations that rely on the prized substance, according to its supporters.
"Despite what many think, helium is not just used for party balloons," Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said during the debate. "It is essential to our 21st century economy. Without helium we wouldn't have life saving MRI machines, computer chips, fiber optic cables or other devices used for defense needs."
The bill would slowly draw down the government's helium reserve in Texas, through controlled sales and semi-annual auctions. Under current law all distribution is slated to be cut off when the government pays off its debt on the facility in October.
Despite helium's universal abundance, worldwide demand for the colorless, odorless gas exceeds the private sector's ability to produce it.
"Why is this a policy issue worthy of consideration of the U.S. Congress? Well, because this invaluable, irreplaceable element is very rare on Earth," Rep. Rush Holt, New Jersey Democrat, said Friday in floor debate.
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