A U.S. Senate committee last week passed the Helium Stewardship Act, designed to alleviate a helium shortage by enabling the Secretary of the Interior to continue selling crude helium from the Federal Helium Reserve.
A stable supply of helium is critical to a number of industries, particularly to MRI manufacturers and their users who need the helium to cool down the superconductive magnets in the scanners.
Current law requires the Bureau of Land Management to sell off the crude helium remaining in the Federal Helium Reserve in order to repay the U.S. Treasury $1.3 billion in debt that was incurred in creating the reserve. That debt will be repaid this year, which means the helium program terminates at the end of fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2013), unless congress acts.
The bill passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would ensure the Federal Helium Reserve continues to operate as is until Sept. 30, 2014, while at the same time setting reforms that gradually would get the government out of the helium business by selling off reserves.
The legislation will, as described:
- Increase taxpayer returns and stimulate investment in private helium sources by selling crude helium at market-driven prices.
- Bolster transparency by requiring timely and public publication of information related to the Federal Helium Reserve.
- Obtain a global helium assessment that includes forecasts of demand and assessments of supply.
- Establish helium extraction, separation, and conservation R&D programs.
- Facilitate the development of a long-term strategy for helium acquisition for all Federal users.
Sen. John Barrasso, (R-Wyo.), said in a statement said the bill will "provide a stable supply of helium essential to manufacturers of important technologies--such as MRI scanners and semiconductors."
However, should congress fail to act on the bill by Sept. 30, it could cause chaos in both the U.S. and global helium markets, according to an opinion piece published in Politico.
"If Sept. 30 arrives without a new bill, the loss of BLM helium could cost jobs and hurt the U.S. economy," according to University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner and Pennsylvania State University physics professor Moses Chan. "Companies such as GE Healthcare and Siemens might have to shut down or delay production of new MRI machines and stop servicing existing machines at hospitals and diagnostic centers."
Even worse, Turner and Chan write, an abrupt end to the bureau's authority to sell helium could put at risk laboratory and university research into the next generation of MRI technologies.