President Signs Helium Bill into Law

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Publication date: 
4 October 2013

The White House announced that President Obama has signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law. Enactment of this legislation will enable an orderly transition of the management of the Federal Helium Reserve.

The White House announced that President Obama has signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law. Enactment of this legislation will enable an orderly transition of the management of the Federal Helium Reserve.

Passage of this legislation came almost seventeen months after a May 2012 Senate hearing on the impending closure of the Federal Helium Reserve. Among the topics covered at this hearing was a 2010 report by the National Research Council’s Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserve. Thirteen senators from both parties cosponsored a bill to make necessary changes in the existing 1996 law managing this reserve. At this hearing, then Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) commented “if Congress does not act, the helium program will disappear altogether in less than three years, leaving our hospitals, national labs, domestic manufacturers and helium producers without an adequate supply.” The Federal Helium Reserve, based in Texas, provides 40 percent of helium to domestic users.

In July 2012 a House subcommittee held a hearing on the helium reserve, at which Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ) warned “we may be heading for a crisis in many industries if we don’t face up to this issue.” Among the witnesses at this hearing was Professor N. Phuan Ong of Princeton University who told the subcommittee that “liquid helium is vitally important for the two largest subfields of physics, condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics.” Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) spoke of the anticipated fall 2013 legislatively-mandated closure of the Federal Helium Reserve, remarking “Congress cannot simply allow this huge economic dislocation and national security threat, when actions can be taken on alternatives.”

A November 2012 report by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior discussed needed changes in the U.S. Helium Program administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Despite bipartisan support for changes to the program, helium legislation died when Congress adjourned in January of this year.

This February, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), Rush Holt, Bill Flores (R-TX) and then Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. The committee held a hearing that month on this legislation at which Samuel Aronson, Vice President of the American Physical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics) testified that:

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.

Aronson urged the committee to ensure priority access and pricing for small Federal grantees, and the support of R&D to capture helium at the well-head or during liquefaction. In March, the committee voted unanimously to send this legislation to the full House. In late April the House, following debate over parts of three days, passed H.R. 527 by a vote of 394-1.

On May 7, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on its own version of this legislation. Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cosponsored this bill, with Wyden remarking that they were “determined the defy the odds and actually get this fixed.” In his answer to a follow-up written question, hearing witness Professor Moses Chan of Penn State University discussed how a federal program was not fully functioning as intended to mitigate helium supply interruptions and pricing problems for low-temperature researchers. Chan was a member of the 2010 National Research Council Committee. The American Physical Society has been working with others on correcting these problems.

On September 10, 120 organizations wrote to House and Senate leaders to “request that Congress act urgently to approve legislation to secure the helium supply and send legislation to the President before October 1.” AIP and four of its Member Societies – the American Astronomical Society; American Physical Society; AVS: Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing; and the Optical Society - signed this letter.

Nine days later the Senate passed its version of the bill by a vote of 97-2. On September 25, the House passed a modified version of the legislation, and then sent it back to the Senate. The Senate agreed to the bill by unanimous consent on September 26, and presented it to the President the next day. President Obama signed the 14-page bill on October 2. The Helium Stewardship Act allows the Secretary of the Interior to continue sales from the Federal Helium Reserve, with the goal of ending federal involvement in helium sales by September 2021.