“You’re absolutely right about the urgency of this,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Murkowski is the Ranking Member on this committee, and had just explained in her opening remarks that “as a practical consequence of current law, we only have until October to get this legislation to the President for signature.” Wyden and Murkowski were both speaking about a bill they have introduced to reform the federal government’s management of more than 40 percent of the nation’s helium supply.
The committee held a one hour hearing on S. 783, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, on May 7. The bill was introduced on April 23, three days before the House of Representatives passed its own version of this legislation by a vote of 394-1.
House action on H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, stretched out over parts of three days in late April. The bill was described as bipartisan, as evidenced by its sponsorship by the Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Doc Hastings (R-WA) and its cosponsorship by the committee’s Ranking Member, Edward Markey (D-MA), as well as Rush Holt (D-NJ), Bill Flores (R-TX), and Jeff Duncan (R-SC). The committee has held hearings on helium this year and in 2012. Hastings remarked at the outset of the House consideration of this bill that “over 20 groups representing the end users of refined helium - and these are high-tech manufacturers of semiconductors, aerospace technologies, medical devices, chemicals, fiber optics, and scientific research - all have called for the passage of this legislation.”
Other representatives spoke of the importance of helium to the scientific community. In his remarks on the floor, Holt explained that the House bill follows the recommendations of a recent report on helium, the priority the legislation gives to federal users and the scientific community, and mentioned the American Physical Society, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics:
“The principles of this bill are consistent with the recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 to improve the helium program by expanding participation and openness in helium markets. It will protect Federal users, such as NASA and the National Labs, as well as the scientific community by ensuring that they have priority access to this federally-owned resource in the short term and exclusive access in the longer term.
“This bill was created with input from the Department of the Interior, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and many scientific researchers. It has the support of the American Physical Society and many other groups and many helium users, such as corporations like General Electric, Siemens, Philips, Intel, Applied Materials, Dow Chemical, IBM, Texas Instruments, and many others. It's a product of close work between the majority and the minority members of the committee.”
The House considered several amendments before passing the bill. One of these amendments would have fundamentally changed the bill’s intent regarding the treatment of three major helium refining companies. The House rejected this amendment by an overwhelming majority, passed the bill, and sent it to the Senate.
The Senate has dealt with this issue before. A hearing was held on a Senate bill a year ago, although no further action was taken. At this week’s hearing there was unanimous agreement that legislation must be passed to prevent a disruption in the operation of the Bureau of Land Management’s helium operation. Among those testifying at this hearing was Moses Chan, a Professor of Physics at Penn State University and a member of a National Research Council committee that produced a report on helium. He testified that the research community is “extremely vulnerable” to helium supply shortages or delays which can lead to weeks or months of disruption to experiments. There were supply interruptions in 2006, 2007, and 2012 that created “havoc” for researchers he said. Chan explained the price of helium has increased 400 percent in four years, and can account for 40 to 50 percent of the budget for a university research grant supported by the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
At this week’s Senate hearing on S. 783, Wyden remarked the federal government has been dealing with helium supply issues since 1965 and that he and Murkowski are “determined to defy the odds and actually get this fixed.” It is clear that both the House and Senate know action must be taken before this fall to ensure the continued operation of the federal helium reserve. But there are – not unexpectedly - some substantial differences in the House and Senate bills that will take time to resolve. “I want everyone to know that Chairman Wyden and I appreciate the urgency here” said Murkowski.