On Wednesday the House Natural Resources Committee approved legislation that would significantly reform how one-half of the nation’s domestic helium supply is managed and sold. Indicative of the committee’s recognition of the importance of helium was the unanimous vote to send this legislation to the full House.
This action by the committee is the latest development in crafting legislation to prevent the closure of the nation’s Federal Helium Reserve this year. Under current law, this reserve will cease operation when a debt from previous operations is repaid. The reserve holds approximately one-half of the nation’s supply of helium.
Last year, 23 senators, from both parties and with a wide range of political philosophies, cosponsored S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 to change the management of the helium reserve. A favorable hearing was held on the bill in May, although a vote was never taken on it. The bill died at the end of the last Congress.
The Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last July on the impact of helium supply shortages on the nation’s economy, national defense, manufactures, and scientific research. The subcommittee received testimony about the vital importance of helium to condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics in sixty U.S. universities and facilities such as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratories, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory.
On February 14 of this year the full House Natural Resources Committee received testimony from a broad range of stakeholders about H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. This bill is sponsored by Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), and is cosponsored by its Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA), Rush Holt (D-NJ), and Bill Flores (R-TX). While there was agreement among the witnesses that changes are needed to ensure a continued supply of helium from the federal reserve, there was disagreement about how this should be accomplished. Among those testifying was Samuel Aronson, Vice President of the American Physical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics.) Aronson testified about a 1995 APS statement on helium, and its “irreplaceable” use in a wide range of scientific applications. He told the committee:
“small researchers reliant on federal research grants continue to be subject to severe supply constraints and price shocks which their research grants cannot accommodate. They are being forced to either shut down experiments, invest in expensive recycle equipment using their own resources, or, according to one nanotechnology researcher, switch to room temperature experiments to continue their work, in less-than-optimal conditions.
“I also note that some large federal users are having their allocations cut back. Argonne National Laboratory is currently receiving only 70% of its allocation from its supplier. Oak Ridge National laboratory currently receives only 60% of its allocation. Sandia National Lab often receives delayed or short orders. As a result, the laboratories have had to reprioritize some of their projects. Federal users who are supposed to receive priority access are not receiving that access.”
To address this problem, Aronson urged the committee “to ensure that small Federal grantees are explicitly eligible for . . . priority access and pricing” through a provision in the bill that authorizes an in-kind program providing preferential access to federal users. He also urged that attention be given to the availability of helium in the medium and long term through support of R&D to capture helium at the well-head or during its liquefaction.
On Wednesday the committee considered H.R. 527 and eight other bills in a markup session. Several changes were made in the bill regarding in-kind sales and the prioritization of helium supplies to federal agencies before a unanimous vote was cast to send the bill to the full House. Hastings, Markey, and Holt commented on the legislation as follows:
“The operation of the federal helium reserve is vital to American manufacturing, job creation, and strong economic growth. Yet reforms must be made to sell off the helium in a more responsible manner. This legislation is a perfect example of using free market principles and bipartisan cooperation to solve a serious problem and guarantee taxpayers a fair return on their resources. I look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to bring this legislation to the floor of the House and eventually sign it into law.”
“Helium plays an integral role in our nation’s economy. This essential resource is used by high-tech manufacturers, medical device suppliers and other scientific industries throughout our country. This bill will help prevent disruptions in helium supplies and ensure a fair return to American taxpayers. I look forward to working with my Republican colleagues to move this bill forward.”
“Anyone who has ever had an MRI scan, used a computer microchip, or accessed the Internet has - perhaps without even knowing it - relied upon technologies made possible by helium. Yet fire-sale pricing of this gas has squandered a relatively rare and valuable resource, reduced returns to taxpayers, and led to an unreliable supply.”
H.R. 527 would maintain the reserve’s operation, require semi-annual helium auctions, and provide access to pipeline infrastructure for pre-approved bidders, in addition to other provisions on matters such as refining and minimum pricing. Of note, a committee release explains “starting when there is 3 billion cubic feet of helium remaining in the Reserve, commercial sales of helium will end and the remaining helium will only be available for federal national security and federal scientific and research needs.” In addition, the bill “establishes coordinated research on helium-3 isotope that could be used for national defense and clean energy development.”
The bill now moves to the House floor. In the Senate, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee wrote to the Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. They stated: “We recognize the importance of preventing a disruption of the helium supply chain that would impact many sectors of our society including health care, high-tech manufacturing, basic science research, and space missions. It is our intention to address this issue quickly.”