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.