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Bipartisanship surfaces on issue of helium reserve

Deadline looms to auction off federal supply

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Federal lawmakers from both parties say they're eager to scale down the nation's helium reserve without disrupting the supply chain, a seemingly arcane effort that is so urgent it may "rise above" the partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.

The Senate is mulling its version of legislation the House passed last month to gradually auction off the government's supply of helium in the Texas Panhandle.

If Congress fails to act, the government's authority to sell the inert gas will soon lapse because of a 1996 law that requires the privatization of the reserve either by 2015 or when more than $1 billion in debts on the reserve is paid off.

This fall, the country is ready to pay off those debts.

"As a result, the helium program will terminate in October absent congressional action," Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said Tuesday at a hearing on the bill.

Legislators want to sell off most of its supply to refineries and other qualified purchasers over the next several years and obtain market value for it, because analysts say current prices are not as high as they should be.

Ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said it is imperative for the Senate to act swiftly, providing time for both chambers of Congress to reconcile any differences in their bills before it heads to President Obama's desk.

"Advancing this bill will lift a weight off the shoulders of many sectors that rely upon helium," she said from the dais, while aides chuckled behind her. "It's a noble effort that can float above the partisan fray, and we should all rise in support of it."

The helium reserve was established in a post-World War I environment, when blimps were king.

Political leaders in Washington have tried for decades to get the government out of the helium business, but they can't quit cold turkey. The stockpile satisfies 40 percent of domestic demand and 30 percent, globally, and "there simply are no practical alternatives to replacing that supply today," Mr. Wyden said.

He said that while helium is often associated with party balloons, it is "a critical resource for a number of important sectors of the American economy."

"It's used as a coolant for MRI machines," he said. "It's used in semiconductor manufacturing, fiber optics manufacturing and research and development."

The House voted, 394-1, last month to draw down the helium reserve through controlled sales and semi-annual auction instead of cutting off the federal supply from the marketplace. Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat, issued the lone dissenting vote by mistake, according to her spokesman.

Buoyed by broad consensus for the mission, legislative aides and industry members said both chambers of the Congress should be able to overcome their divergent approaches to auctioning off the gas.

The Senate version protects existing refiners' supply in the short term and waits until fiscal 2015 to sell off 10 percent of the reserve, a ratio that increases to 20 percent in year two, 30 percent in year three and so on.

David Joyner, president of Air Liquide Helium America, said if the Senate waits until late 2014 to hold its first auction, it should take immediate steps to allocate a fair share of helium to non-refiners and buyers without long-standing access to the reserve.

"Another year of 100 percent allocation to three companies is antithetical to the goals supported in this legislation, and would again postpone any benefits that would accrue to taxpayers and end users by increasing competition and access," he said.

Timothy R. Spisak, a deputy assistant director at the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the reserve, told the committee on Tuesday that his agency supports the senators' bill.

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