U.S. Senate Passes Bill to Head Off Helium Shortage

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would allow the government to continue selling its stockpiled helium, raising hopes that legislators can avoid a looming disruption in the helium trade that researchers and high-tech companies say would be disastrous.

Helium, an inert lighter-than-air gas, not only fills balloons, but is also essential for manufacturing optical fiber and microchips. It is also simply irreplaceable in cooling MRI machines, purging rocket engines, and performing many types of physics research. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a major supplier of the stuff. As directed by Congress in 1996, it has been selling the gas under complicated rules designed to recoup the $1.3 billion that taxpayers spent building the reserve mainly during the Cold War.

Those rules are set to expire in October and, without a new congressional authorization, the sales would stop. A stoppage would likely create a massive shortage of helium; the federal sales now account for 42% of U.S. helium production and 35% of global production.

The Senate measure now moves to the House of Representatives, which passed a similar bill in April by a count of 394 to 1—with the one nay vote being a mistake. The two bills differ slightly in how the remaining helium will be auctioned off. BLM has been selling the helium at a rate set only to recover the government's investment. That price is now suppressing the market value for crude helium and discouraging conservation and exploration for new supplies, according to a 2010 study by the National Research Council of the National Academies. The auction would aim to establish a fairer price for BLM helium.

Research groups are overjoyed by the Senate’s move to lift the helium bill across the finish line. In a statement, Marinda Li Wu, president of the American Chemical Society, applauded the vote and warned of the consequences of inaction: “If the liquid helium supply was to suddenly vanish, our society would be turned upside down.”

If the House and Senate quickly come to agreement on the bill, the measure should receive a warm welcome at the White House. Today, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement saying that "[t]he Administration strongly supports" the Senate bill.

But such agreement isn't yet a done deal. The two bills also differ in what they would do with the proceeds of the continuing sales, which should amount to about $140 million per year. Senate Democrats would like to use that money to pay for things like backlogged maintenance at national parks. House Republicans would like to use it to reduce the federal deficit.

"Differences in deficit reduction and spending will need to be resolved," said Doc Hastings (R-WA), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and co-sponsor of the House bill, in a statement. Some Washington insiders worry that that issue may still keep legislators from reaching an agreement in time to avoid floating off the helium cliff.

*Correction, 11:01 a.m., 20 September: The story has been corrected to reflect that federal sales account for 42% of U.S. helium production and 35% of global production, instead of meeting similar percentages of demand.