- Obama downplays IRS scandal, blames Obamacare rollout on ‘outdated’ agencies
- Pregnancies decline overall, up among older women
- Pentagon plans to destroy Syrian chemical arms on ship at sea
- Paris Metro issues ‘politeness manual’ to improve passengers’ behavior
- Justin Bieber, crew detained at Australian airport in drug search
- Lee Rigby trial: Muslim who machete-hacked soldier calls it ‘humane’ kill
- GM ending Chevy sales in Europe to focus on Opel and Vauxhall
- Putin’s diplomats to U.S. busted for living high life off $1.5M bilked from Medicaid
- Happy Meal: Couple goes to McDonald’s, leaves with bag packed with cash
- Boehner: It took me 3 to 4 hours to sign up for Obamacare
It’s a squeaker: Helium reserve of urgent concern for Congress ahead of shutdown
New technology needs the inert gas
Most Americans equate helium with clowns and squeaky-voiced numbskulls, but with a worldwide shortage looming, Congress has suddenly taken a keen interest in the gas.
In a rare spurt of bipartisanship, the House passed a bill last week to try to keep the federal government’s helium reserve open and operating, gradually selling off the gas rather than shutting down the Texas facility later this year, which is what is scheduled to happen under current law.
“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 floor debate. “It is essential to our 21st century economy.”
The United States began stockpiling the inert gas after World War I, when blimps were at the forefront of air travel and military advancement. Zeppelins fell out of fashion in short order, but the federal government continued to store the odorless, colorless gas in the Texas Panhandle.
With costs piling up for what seemed like a useless endeavor, Congress decided in 1996 to privatize the reserve either by 2015 or when it paid off more than $1 billion in debt from helium-gathering efforts — “whichever came first,” Mr. Hastings said.
With final payments set for October, the House voted, 394-1, to draw down the helium reserve through controlled sales and semi-annual auction instead of cutting off the federal supply from the marketplace, a seemingly arcane maneuver that shed light on a global shortage of the second-most abundant element in the universe.
The bill, which now goes to the Senate, is intended to protect the country — if not the world — from a damaging dearth of helium that would limit its use in MRI machines, fiber optic cables, computer chips and more, according to lawmakers.
“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.
The Federal Helium Reserve is operated by the Bureau of Land Management and comprises 30 percent of the world’s helium supply and 50 percent of the domestic supply, according to the Committee on Natural Resources. While the BLM is ready to pay off its debts, the reserve still contains 10 billion cubic feet of helium.
Supporters of the House bill also said taxpayers were not getting a good return on the federal government’s sale of the gas. Rising demand has outpaced the federal pricing formula, so BLM’s asking price is too low, lawmakers said.
They said low prices also discouraged private helium production and provided an unfair advantage to select companies that are able to purchase helium from the reserve.
The legislation would open up the market for helium to new purchasers without violating existing contracts with several refiners along the reserve’s pipeline, according to the bill’s sponsors. They said those agreements would have to be renegotiated, anyway, when the program ended in October.
When only 3 billion cubic feet of helium is left, the government will retain the supply for its national security and scientific needs.
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat, was the only member to vote against the bill. Her spokesman, Adam Hudson, said the vote was unintentional and she plans to inform the House clerk of her support for the bill.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- House Speaker John Boehner: It took me 3 to 4 hours to sign up for Obamacare
- Young millennials shun Obamacare, creating risky imbalance
- Almost 1.5 million deemed eligible for Medicaid in October alone: Obama administration
- Federal judge set to decide Obamacare battle over subsidies
- Diagnosis: Health site better, but needs work
Latest Blog Entries
- Calif.: Give 'gift of health' by pledging cash for the uninsured
- Tensions hit boiling point over Obamacare enrollment figures, error rates
- Young, uninsured adults vital to Obamacare are not keen on enrolling: New Harvard poll
- Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox will promote Obamacare at Mall of America
- HealthCare.gov employs a new look once again
- 'Hunger Games' delivers Obama's message on income inequality: liberal group
- U.S. drops 2,000 mice on Guam by parachute to kill snakes
- Inside China: Nuclear submarines capable of widespread attack on U.S.
- Activists encourage Obama to circumvent Congress, use more executive authority
- CARSON: Getting to the top by starting at the bottom
- Obama returns to class warfare as poll numbers plunge
- U.S. pilot scares off Iranians with 'Top Gun'-worthy stunt: 'You really ought to go home'
- U.S. debt jumps a record $328 billion tops $17 trillion for first time
- Hack attack: 2 million Facebook, Twitter passwords stolen
- American teacher shot and killed at Benghazi international school
Independent voices from the The Washington Times Communities
Understanding economic events with a free market explanation
John Wood illustrates a new American politics, and the path to get there.
Interviews and show reviews from the Los Angeles punk scene past and present. Los Angeles has always been rich in punk rock talent since punk rock was born.
NFL junkie Eric Golub reports on his favorite obsession. There is no football offseason. Every February he pretends to care about other sports while sobbing uncontrollably each Sunday until September.
White House pets gone wild!