To increase awareness in the physics community about the public policy activities of AIP's ten Member Societies, it is the policy of FYI to report on resolutions and statements by those Societies. A statement on legislation proposing to sell off the nation's helium reserves was issued by the Council of The American Physical Society on November 19. The statement is reproduced in full below, followed by quotes from a supporting background paper:
"CONSERVATION OF HELIUM:
"The American Physical Society is profoundly concerned about the potential loss of the nation's accumulated helium reserves. Helium is essential for achieving the extremely cold temperatures required by many current and emerging technologies as well as for advanced scientific research. The overall demand for helium has been steadily increasing, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.
"Although the United States is fortunate in having a greater abundance of this critical element than any other nation, the supply has severe natural limits. Helium is obtained by extraction from natural gas. If not extracted, the helium is irretrievably lost to the atmosphere when the gas is burned. For this reason, the federal government prudently established a storage program for helium, but legislation now being considered would dispose of virtually this entire helium store within two decades.
"In view of the importance of this unique and irreplaceable natural resource to modern science and technology, The American Physical Society urges that measures be adopted that will both conserve and enhance the nation's helium reserves. Failure to do so would not only be wasteful, but would be economically and technologically shortsighted."
(This paper was prepared as a supporting document by members of the APS Panel on Public Affairs, but has not been reviewed by the Society.)
Because liquid helium "has the lowest boiling point of any substance," the paper says, it is used increasingly in modern technologies requiring extremely low temperatures. It cools the superconducting magnets used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, high-energy accelerators, and the emerging MAGLEV technology. According to the paper, "liquid helium is an essential cryogenic fluid in almost every field of modern laboratory research."
Supplies of helium, a constituent of some natural gas fields, "are finite and irreplaceable," the paper notes. The U.S. is the world's major producer, consumer and exporter, and both domestic and export markets have been growing annually. The paper expects the U.S. helium reserve to be "a very valuable asset in the coming decades," yet projections of demand for helium and natural gas imply that the supply of helium will be exhausted in 21 years.
The 104th Congress has decreed abolishment of the Bureau of Mines, which maintains the helium reserve, and the Budget Reconciliation bill (vetoed by President Clinton on December 6 for other reasons) would remove the U.S. government from helium extraction and related activities. The government would be required to offer for sale almost all the reserve as well as the production facilities. The Clinton Administration has also proposed abolishing the reserve.
The paper argues that since it would retain some of the helium, "the government will realize little savings in its annual costs of operating and maintaining" the reserve, which only totalled $2 million in fiscal year 1996. The reserve earned almost that much for storing privately-extracted reserves during times when supply exceeded demand.
For more information, please contact Robert Park at the APS Office of Public Affairs, (202) 662-8700.