Two years ago, scientists warned Congress of a looming helium crisis. Yesterday, a Senate panel examined a proposal that responds to that warning.
"Helium is a commodity that is frequently overlooked and often only considered when purchasing balloons for parties," said Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at a hearing on a bill he has introduced that would alter the terms under which the United States is selling off its once-vast reserve of helium gas, held underground in a natural geological formation near Amarillo, Texas. "Let me take a moment and highlight the importance of this commodity, as well as the importance of the U.S. helium reserve in the world's helium market."
The proposed Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 (S.2374) would maintain a roughly 15-year supply for federal users, including the holders of research grants. It would also give priority to federally funded researchers in times of shortage. Those provisions are meant to maintain a steady supply of helium for scientists as they ease over to private suppliers.
Bingaman's bill, co-sponsored by two other Democrats and two Republicans, would supplant a 1996 law expiring next year that authorizes sales from the federal helium reserve. Those sales, which constitute nearly 30% of the world's helium, would simply stop if Congress fails to act.
Moses Chan, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who served on a 2010 study by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) on the effects of the sales on the global helium supply, welcomes the proposed legislation. "They are saying that they are not getting out of the helium business and that they will keep some sort of helium reserve" after next year, Chan told ScienceInsider prior to testifying at the hearing.
Helium is good for much more than filling party balloons. Industrially, it's used in the manufacture of semiconductors and microchips. Frigid liquid helium keeps the superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging machines running. Welding alone accounts for 20% of total consumption.
Although only 3% of helium goes to basic research, helium is irreplaceable in low-temperature physics, where liquid helium is used to cool experiments to near absolute zero. And fluctuations in price and supply, such as those that occurred in 2006 and 2007, can be devastating to an academic, Chan told the Senate panel, which Bingaman chairs. "Liquid helium may account for up to 40% of the total budget of his or her grant," he testified.
Bingaman's bill follows many of the recommendations spelled out in NRC's study, which says current practices at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are distorting the market price. The United States started buying helium and pumping it into the reserve in 1960, eventually accumulating 900 billion liters of unrefined gas. In 1996, Congress order the sale of all but 17 billion liters by 2015 at a price that would recoup the $1.4 billion the government had spent to build the reserve and the connecting pipelines in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In 2003, BLM began offering for sale 60 billion liters of gas per year at a fixed price. The NRC study urged BLM to sell the helium at fair market value and not to draw the reserve down at a fixed volume per year. Instead, it suggested proceeding in a way that would maximize overall extraction.
The new bill takes that advice to heart by proposing to sell off the remaining helium in three phases. The first would continue the sale of helium at a fixed amount per year for the next year or so until BLM has recouped its investment. The second phase, likely lasting until 2020, would then involve a more gradual drawdown designed to maximize extraction. A third phase would kick in when 85 billion liters remained, and for sales only to federal agencies and grant holders. That strategy should guarantee federal users a supply of helium until about 2030, Timothy Spisak, deputy assistant director for minerals and realty management at BLM, told the committee. Throughout all this, BLM would poll private helium suppliers to determine a market price.
Chan's only criticism of the legislation is its failure to support a recommendation by NRC's panel that the federal government invest in equipment so that more university researchers could recapture the helium gas boiling out of their cryostats. Such a move could reduce losses by up to 80%, although researchers would have to bear the cost of liquefying the gas. The bill makes no mention of such recovery. In fact, a statement released along with the bill emphasizes that it authorizes no new spending.
Others had more technical criticisms. In his testimony, David Joyner, president of Air Liquide Helium America Inc., in Houston, Texas, noted that only four companies have refineries attached to the reserve and that they are currently allotted 94% of the sales. BLM can achieve a true market price only if the proposed law reduced that allotment and required the four companies to refine helium for other buyers for a controlled fee, he testified. But Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing and supply chain at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., in Allentown, Pennsylvania, testified that such an approach would be equivalent to Congress requiring one carmaker to let a rival use its factories so it wouldn't have to build its own. "I can think of nothing more hostile to the bedrock principles of capitalism," he said.
With industry on its side, Nelson said, Congress needs to act soon to keep helium sales from simply stopping. "Without timely action, there will be chaos in the helium supply in the United States."