House Hearing on Helium Supply

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Publication date: 
27 July 2012

“We  may be heading for a crisis in many industries if we don’t face up to this  issue” warned Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), Ranking Member on the House Energy and  Mineral Resources Subcommittee at a July 20 hearing on the nation’s helium  supply.  Holt’s opening comment came at  the start of a hearing entitled “Helium: Supply Shortages Impacting our  Economy, National Defense and Manufacturing" that received testimony from  an official of the Department of the Interior and industrial and scientific  witnesses.

This  was the second hearing that has been held this year on the nation’s supply of  helium, driven by the very real concern that a legislative mandate will worsen  already significant supply and price fluctuations.  In May, the Senate Committee on Energy and  Natural Resources held a hearing on S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012.  This 15-page bill, introduced by Senator Jeff  Bingaman (D-NM) would require changes in the management of the nation’s federal  helium reserve in Texas.  Indicative of  the interest there is in this problem are the nineteen Democratic and  Republican senators, with a wide range of political philosophies, who have  cosponsored this bill.

The  July 20 House hearing demonstrated similar bipartisan concern.  In his opening comments, Subcommittee Chairman  Doug Lamborn (R-CO) spoke of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) helium  reserve and its impending closure, calling helium “vital to national security,”  and warning of the “significant economic disruption” there will be to American  manufacturers.  Of note, he spoke of a  global shortage of Helium-3.  “The  impending shortage of helium and H-3 could have disastrous consequences for  U.S. industries that are dependent on helium to innovate, manufacture, and  provide jobs for Americans,” Lamborn said.   “Having identified these issues, the question is what is the  solution?  Clearly, Congress cannot  simply allow this huge economic dislocation and national security threat, when  action can be taken on alternatives.   However, neither can Congress simply continue along in the process that  has resulted in this critical juncture.”

The  first witness was Timothy Spisak, an official of the BLM.  He described the establishment of the Federal  Helium Reserve, the world’s “only significant long-term storage facility for  crude helium.”  Starting in 1920,  Congress passed a series of laws that manage this resource, the last of which  mandates the sale of nearly all helium in the reserve by 2015 to repay an  earlier debt incurred by the facility.   Spisak estimates this debt will be repaid by March 2013.  In concluding his testimony, Spisak told the  subcommittee “The BLM welcomes further discussion about the Federal helium  program and the BLM’s role in meeting future helium needs for the country,  especially for Federal agencies that depend on helium for scientific research,  aerospace projects, and defense purposes.”

One  of those testifying was Professor N. Phuan Ong of the Physics Department of  Princeton University.  “Liquid helium is  vitally important for the two largest subfields of physics, condensed-matter  physics and high-energy physics,” he said.   His condensed-matter group, one of seven to ten major liquid helium user  research groups at Princeton, utilizes approximately 10,000 to 15,000 liters of  liquid helium annually.  About thirty  other universities have similar needs, in addition to thirty universities with  smaller requirements.  The National High  Magnetic Field Laboratories, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Argonne  National Laboratory have very large liquid helium requirements.  For example, the National High Magnetic Field  Laboratory in Florida uses 720,000 liters of liquid helium annually.  “Liquid helium nurtures the health of this  community” Ong told the subcommittee.  This  helium comes at a steep price.  Ong  estimates that a typical $100,000 yearly grant from the National Science  Foundation might require $50,000 of liquid helium, which he characterized as an  “absurd amount.”

While  helium is a very common component of natural gas in many (but not all)  locations, the economics of its extraction depends on its concentration.  There was concern on both sides of the  witness table that the United States could become dependent on foreign  suppliers.  In response to rising prices  and shortages, helium users are moving toward recapture and recovery facilities  which are both very technical and expensive.   Ong described a $1.5 million, 90% recovery rate facility at Princeton  that is expected to pay for itself in ten years.  Holt complimented Ong on his “very telling  testimony” and how important helium is to an “important segment of users.”

Holt  and several other representatives are working on a draft helium bill that he  hopes will have bipartisan support.  “We  face a difficult problem here because this is an unusual resource that is  important in so many ways,” he said, “adding “we will wrestle with how to  handle this.”  In closing the hearing,  Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) commented on the importance of helium,  saying “This is about innovation.”