Obama signs bill to secure US helium supply

03 October 2013 18:13  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--President Barack Obama has signed into law a bill approved by Congress to continue the federal government’s role in providing helium supplies to industry and the general market, the White House said on Thursday.

The White House press secretary said that Obama signed the bill, HR-527, on Wednesday night.

Unanimously approved by both the House and Senate, HR-527, "The Helium Stewardship Act, essentially provides that the federal government will continue to operate the helium reserve under existing terms for another year.

After the one-year extension for the existing federal role in operating the helium reserve, semi-annual helium auctions will be held to achieve a more open and competitive purchasing process and ensure a better return for taxpayers, according to the bill.

That process will continue until the federally owned helium reserve is drawn down to some 3 billion cubic feet (bcf) (85 million cubic metres) when public sales will be ended, and that volume will be available only for federal national security and government scientific purposes.

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

That system feeds raw helium recovered from natural gas production to six refineries operated by four major industrial gases firms along the FHR pipeline that spans parts of three states – Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Because of complaints about the way that FHR operates and losses to the federal government due to under-priced sales of the helium, Congress decided in 1996 to shut down the federal role. 

But US industries appealed the shutdown order, arguing that without a planned private-sector-based procedure to take over the federal role, an abrupt shutdown would cause chaos.

The measure approved by Obama enables that transition.

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, computer chips, medical lasers, rocket fuels and nuclear reactors, among many others.

By: Joe Kamalick
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