US Congress to get helium supply relief bill in new year

10 December 2012 19:03  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The House Natural Resources Committee chairman will introduce legislation early in the new year to resolve the helium supply crisis that threatens US manufacturing, medical care and basic research, he said on Monday.

Representative Doc Hastings (Republican-Washington) said that he would soon begin circulating a draft bill to members of the Natural Resources Committee, with the objective of passing a helium relief measure quickly in 2013.

A US government-operated system, the Federal Helium Reserve (FHR) in Texas, provides 30% of the world’s supply of helium and more than 50% of US domestic demand.

While the federal role in managing and selling helium dates to the World War I era – when helium was needed for military blimps – the FHR is by law scheduled to shut down in late 2013.

Citing large debts run up by the Department of the Interior (DOI) in managing the FHR, Congress in 1996 directed that the federal government should close down the reserve and get out of the helium business.

In an analysis Hastings wrote for The Hill newspaper, he warned that if the federal helium reserve is allowed to shut down in October next year without alternative, private-sector arrangements having been made, “half of the domestic supply would not be marketable”.

That in turn could trigger a wide-scale US industrial, medical and research crisis, Hastings said.

“Earlier this year, an unannounced shutdown of operations at the Federal Helium Reserve threw the entire helium industry into chaos,” Hastings noted.

“Some companies came within days of having to shutter their manufacturing operations while waiting for [DOI] to resume operations,” he said.  “This shutdown came as a surprise to many who depend on helium and we must make sure that [DOI] is operating in the most transparent and open manner possible.”

Helium is broadly used across US manufacturing industries, and it is critical to medical sector operations, especially diagnostics such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.

The lighter-than-air gas also plays a crucial role in welding – which is ubiquitous in almost every manufacturing and process industry, including chemicals and refining – and in such varied products as LCD video screens, medical lasers, rocket fuels and nuclear reactors, among many others.

In congressional testimony earlier this year, helium was identified as critical to basic research, having played a central role in about one-third of the 31 Nobel Prizes awarded for physics since 1980.

Hastings said his draft bill will, among other provisions, ensure that the federal helium reserve stays open until all of the government-sourced helium is sold.  The bill also would “promote new development of domestic helium resources so our country is prepared when the Reserve does close”, he said.

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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