Major Corporations Urgently Lobby Congress to Save Dwindling U.S. Supply of…Helium

Friday, September 13, 2013
(graphic: Florists' Review Magazine)

The United States is fast approaching the so-called “helium cliff” that, without congressional action, will result in key industries losing access to this vital element. That’s why some of the biggest names in corporate America are lobbying lawmakers for immediate help.

 

For starters, the nation is not running out of helium. But due to something Congress did 17 years ago, the available supply of this element will run dry by October 1.

 

Here’s what happened:

 

For much of the 20th century, the federal government was the main supplier of helium for whatever company or industry needed it. The element was stockpiled by the Bureau of Land Management in its Federal Helium Reserve, which is located beneath Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where the geology was ideal for storing enormous quantities of helium. That holding represents nearly 50% of helium in the U.S., and about a third of all helium in the world.

 

But by the mid-1990s, the Federal Helium Reserve had too much helium and was losing money, resulting in $1.3 billion in debt. So Congress adopted the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (pdf) that mandated the reserve to start selling its helium and pay off its debt by the end of 2014.

 

Lawmakers expected private companies to fill the void in the meantime. But that never developed, and the reserve wound up paying off its debts a year earlier than expected. Because of the way the law was written, the reserve must shut down its operations with the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

 

That means companies used to buying helium from the reserve won’t have this access come October 1.

 

There’s still plenty of helium in the ground at this reserve, about 370 billion liters of it. But Congress will have to reauthorize the reserve in order for it to sell helium next month and beyond.

 

Helium is essential for all kinds of industries, including aerospace, the military, electronics manufacturing, medical imaging and others.

 

This would explain why lobbyists for corporations like Intel, Samsung, General Electric and Seimens have been knocking on lawmakers’ doors a lot, urging them to pass legislation to keep the reserve going.

 

“In the semiconductor industry, there is no true substitute for helium,” a Samsung spokesperson said in a statement to Motherboard. “A disruption in the global helium supply to industrial users would threaten jobs at our manufacturing facility, our investment in the U.S. market, and ultimately could lead to higher prices for consumers for smartphones and tablets. Any shortage of supply would also threaten growth of the U.S. semiconductor industry in the long term.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff

 

To Learn More:

The Global Helium Crisis Is About To Get A Lot Worse (by Grace Wyler, Motherboard)

Big-Name Tech Firms Pushing to Save Helium (by Brandon Conradis, OpenSecrets.org)

Tech Lobbies for Congress to Gain Ground on Helium (by Alex Byers, Politico)

The Government Program that Presidents Can’t Get Rid Of (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Helium Shortage Hits U.S. Forces in Afghanistan (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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