Representatives Look to Shore Up Nation’s Helium Supply

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Publication date: 
30 June 2017
Number: 
90

Last week, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources discussed draft legislation to facilitate the production of helium on federal lands. As helium is vital to several sectors including academic research, members expressed concerns about the impending closure of the Federal Helium Reserve.

helium-cliffside-gas-field-interior.jpg

Cliffside Gas Field and Crude Helium Enrichment Unit

Under current leasing law, helium is extracted as a byproduct of hydrocarbon gas production on federal lands. The "Helium Extraction Act" would facilitate additional helium production on federal lands.

(Image credit - Department of the Interior)

Public domain

On June 21, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearingto discuss a draft of the “Helium Extraction Act,” which aims to facilitate additional helium production on federal lands.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Paul Gosar (R-WY) highlighted the importance of helium to a broad range of industries, remarking, “The unique qualities of [helium] have made it an irreplaceable part of our medical, space, and defense industries in a variety of applications, including MRI machines, semiconductors, and air-to-air missile guidance.”

Gosar then expressed concern about the future of the domestic helium market as the government privatizes the Federal Helium Reserve in accordance with the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. He remarked that

With the shutdown of the reserve, a major source of helium that has existed for nearly a century will no longer be available. In turn, Congress has created another ‘helium cliff’ — and we need to ensure our country will have access to such a necessary resource.

Gosar said the new bill would modify the Mineral Leasing Act so that companies could continue to extract helium in areas with depleted hydrocarbon deposits. He explained that current leasing law for federal lands only allows for helium extraction as a byproduct of hydrocarbon gas production.

Ranking Member Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) also stressed the importance of helium, particularly for academic researchers. “That’s why a coalition of scientific societies recently published a report in which they refer to liquid helium as ‘the professional lifeblood of tens of thousands of scientists and engineers across America’s discovery and innovation landscape,’”  he noted in his opening statement.

Issued last year by the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, and the Materials Research Society, the report Lowenthal referred to recommends a set of actions federal agencies could take to help insulate researchers from helium supply shortages and price spikes.

Though Lowenthal acknowledged the draft bill as a step in the right direction, he emphasized more would need to be done, saying,

The draft bill we’re discussing today appears to fix one problem, but I think we need to take a hard look and ask if this is enough. Are there other laws that might need to be changed to ensure that the United States doesn’t become dependent on foreign supplies of this critical and irreplaceable element?

Physicist urges Congress to fund helium recycling programs

Stuart Brown, a physics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, testified about the importance of helium to academic researchers.

Brown said liquid helium has contributed to breakthrough advances in fundamental science, medicine, national security, and computer technology, and cited magnetic resonance imaging as an example of a widely used technology that relies on the substance.

However, he noted that the price researchers pay for helium increased by as much as 250 percent in the past decade. These rising costs harm academic institutions, Brown said, resulting in faculty investigators hiring fewer graduate students, individual investigators abandoning research areas that require liquid helium, and a reluctance at universities to hire faculty whose research requires liquid helium.

Brown emphasized that recycling equipment can “substantially reduce”  the government’s expenditures since “this type of investment can pay for itself in fewer than 10 years.”  However, most academic researchers do not have sufficient funds to purchase the equipment, he stressed.

He urged the subcommittee to consider legislation that "provides support to federal agencies to sponsor programs aimed at reducing researchers' helium consumption and expenditures without compromising the vitality of their research programs."  The suggestion echoed a recommendation of the scientific societies’ report.

Reserve closure may hit federal users especially hard

Several federal agencies currently purchase helium from the Federal Helium Reserve at discounted rates through a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “in-kind” program.

Tim Spisak, acting assistant director for energy, minerals, and realty management at BLM, testified that with the completion of the Federal Helium Reserve sell-off by 2021, federal users will need to find new sources of helium.

A background memo released by the subcommittee prior to the June 21 hearing notes that BLM interpreted the Helium Stewardship Act to mean they should sell off the reserve in its entirety, “including the 3 billion cubic feet designated for federal users.”

After the reserve closes, Spisak said, “Federal defense and research access to helium would rely on the private helium market and market prices. This will likely result in increased costs to meet federal helium requirements for defense and homeland security uses and in planned aerospace programs.”

Spisak said BLM recommends a reconfigured “in-kind” program be established to provide federal agencies an assured supply of helium following the reserve closure.

Supply concerns rising following Qatar blockade

As the time draws near for the privatization of the Federal Helium Reserve, the importance of domestic helium supplies rose last month when Saudi Arabia closed its borders with Qatar, forcing suspension of Qatari helium production. Qatar is second behind the U.S. in world helium production, with Algeria and Russia ranked third and fourth, respectively.

Gosar and Lowenthal stressed that without a domestic source of helium, American industries would be forced to rely on foreign entities. Gosar noted that this is a concern since “each of the other major supply countries of helium implicates national security concerns.”

Similarly, Lowenthal said the Qatar situation “highlights the critical importance of having a robust, domestic, helium production industry.”

Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., said if the Qatar production plants do not come back online there “will be shortages that could occur.” However, he testified that domestic supplies should be fine in the long run, saying,

As long as there’s a demand for energy in the United States and there’s exploration activity for natural gas and the development of CO2 for ancillary and recovery projects, there will be the opportunity to recover additional quantities of helium for domestic and even probably enough for exporting activities.

Spisak also reassured the subcommittee that he believed the U.S. would likely have enough production to meet domestic needs for the next five to 10 years. However, he also warned that the “crystal ball going out past 10 years is a little cloudy.”  

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