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U.S. House Passes Bill That Would Head Off Massive Helium Shortage

Pslawinski/Science News for Kids

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill by a vote of 394 to 1 that would head off a critical shortage of helium that is sure to strike in October if Congress does nothing. That news should come as a relief to the thousands of scientists and technologists who rely on the stuff as an irreplaceable resource to run MRI machines, manufacture optical fibers and microchips, and cool samples to near absolute zero. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate earlier this week.

The shortage would be of the federal government's own making. In 1996, Congress mandated that the government sell off the vast reserve of helium it had accumulated and stored underground in a natural geologic formation near Amarillo, Texas. Sales of the federal helium reserve began in 2003 and were to continue only until the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had recouped the $1.3 billion the government spent accumulating the helium, mostly during the Cold War. BLM will break even this fiscal year, which ends 30 September. Beyond that date, it has no mandate to sell the roughly 370 billion liters of gas that will remain in the ground. That's a problem because BLM sales now supply 42% of the United States' demand for helium and 35% of the global demand.

The House bill would continue sales as they are now conducted for another year. Then, the bill would require at least 60% of the helium to be sold in semiannual auctions. That arrangement is meant to remedy the problem that BLM now charges a below-market price for its helium, which encourages waste and discourages the development of new sources of helium. Finally, when the reserve dips to roughly 85 billion liters of gas (in about 5 years), the House bill would limit sales to federal users, including the holders of extramural research grants. That restriction aims to ensure a supply for federal research for another 10 years or so. The Senate bill is largely similar, although it differs on what fraction of the helium would be auctioned and other details. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing on the bill on 7 May.

If the overwhelming House vote is an indicator, Congress is eager to head off a helium shortage that could cripple several high-tech industries. But the measure was nearly derailed by a last-minute amendment. Representative Brad Schneider (D-IL) moved to reopen the bill for amendments so that it could be rewritten to explicitly prohibit sales of helium to countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. That motion failed by a vote of 211 to 186, however, with all of the yeas coming from Democrats. Moments later, Democrats turned around and voted 186 to 1 to approve the bill.

Quantum theory may explain how an electron can be in two places at once, but it cannot explain how, in the minds of nearly 200 legislators, a bill can be simultaneously bad enough to require a last-minute rewrite and then good enough to approve.

*Correction, 3:20 p.m., 29 April: The story has been corrected to indicate that, under House rules, Representative Schneider's motion to "recommit" would not actually have sent the bill back to committee.