For several years, I’ve been aware of a national shortage on helium. That’s not because I buy party balloons regularly but because liquid helium is used to cool the superconducting magnet on the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instrument in the chemistry department. Since NMRs are closely related to the MRI’s used in hospital, both instruments need the liquid helium to make sure that their magnets stay cold and are usable. Thus far, we’ve been able to get helium just as we need it, but the suppliers aren’t able to give us spare gas or liquid to make sure they can provide for all of their customers.
The history of the situation goes back to World War I when the military started to explore helium for filling blimps or dirigibles for spying behind enemy lines. In the 1960’s, the United States decided to start stockpiling helium to make sure that we wouldn’t run out if it became a military necessity. The most common source of helium is in deposits of natural gas that may be naturally enriched in helium. Enriched is a relative term since the natural gas only contains between 0.5 and 2.7% helium. The best way to store the gas/helium mixture was to pump it underground, which created the Federal Helium Reserve on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land outside Amarillo, TX, chosen for its proximity to the natural gas fields in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.
By 1995, the national helium reserve was $1.4 billion in debt, so Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which ordered that the reserve should start selling the resources until the debt was paid off. At that point, the price for the helium from the reserve was locked in at a set point above the market value. Federal agencies were required to buy their helium at the higher price from BLM to create a guaranteed market. Fiscally responsible, doesn’t penalize academic and industrial users- sounds like an excellent idea, right?
Since then, the need for helium gas and liquid helium has increased enormously. Since helium liquefies at about 4 Kelvin, it is a cryogen, roughly translated to, “wikked cold liquid.” Liquid helium is now used as a cryogen for low temperature applications in physics and for superconducting magnets, but it is also used fabricating semiconductors and for military uses. So over time, the price of liquid helium increased until it hit the BLM price, but it stopped there since there was no point in charging more when people could get helium less expensively from the Federal Helium Reserve. Even on the international market, all prices are benchmarked to the BLM price, and some companies went out of business as a result. Currently the Federal Helium Reserve supplies 40% of domestic helium and 30% of the global market.
The problem is that the $1.4 billion debt will be paid off in October, and according to the original law, the reserve was supposed to close when the debt had been retired. Since a number of companies had gone out of business, there are currently very few sources of helium, and the current helium scarcity will become a crisis.
The energy committees in Congress are quite aware of the urgency of this situation, and the goal is to have the Federal Helium Reserve remain open and to ramp up the price gradually to be market controlled, thus allowing the helium supply to transition to market control. That this issue is extremely bipartisan is demonstrated by the House passing a bill 394-1 to keep the reserve open and let the price adjustment occur.
In the Senate, the helium bill should be voted out of committee this week in what’s called a “mark-up” session. I always envision a bunch of senators sitting around with red pens and a copy of the bill, but the process is actually more formal with amendments and voting. With such widespread popularity, the bill could potentially pass by unanimous consent rather than requiring a vote, according to a recent article in one of the daily newspapers that focuses on Congress. The bill is unlikely to receive floor time during this work period since we are consumed by immigration at the moment, but there is hope that we’ll deal with it in July.
One of the really interesting parts of this story is how my involvement has been influenced by other Fellows. One of last year’s Fellows worked on the version for the previous Congress, and she mentioned it when we had dinner together. One of this year’s Fellows is working on the current version, and she mentioned to me that this issue has a significant deadline. It was because of her that I asked to be the expert in my office, and she also sat down with me and gave me the whole background story on how we got to the current situation.
When a bill is going to be coming up, committees will often have hearings on the topic. My fellow Fellow was the lead for the helium hearing, and she did a magnificent job of selecting and prepping speakers. Energy and Natural Resources Chair Senator Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Member Senator Murkowski (R-AK) have an excellent rapport and demonstrate how progress can be made in a bipartisan effort. The staff wrote straight opening comments for Senator Wyden, but I especially appreciated wonderful puns in the opening remarks from Senator Murkowski.
“Lastly, and on a slightly lighter note, let me say that advancing this bill will lift a weight off the shoulders of many sectors that rely upon helium. This is a noble effort that can float above the partisan fray. We should all rise in support of it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to hearing from the witnesses.”