The other federal reserve

As if the debt ceiling weren’t enough, US Congress has to deal with the looming helium ceiling

September 19, 2013
September 19, 2013

It’s the most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, yet helium has been in short supply for more than a year. And it’s about to get worse. On Oct. 7, the US Federal Helium Reserve will shut down its reservoir in Amarillo, Texas, unless the country’s Congress votes to keep the Federal Helium Program (FHP) going.

Helium is crucial to the technology sector. Unlike hydrogen, it’s stable, meaning it doesn’t easily react with other elements. It also deals well with extreme temperatures. That’s why it is used in everything from guiding air-to-air missiles to manufacturing semiconductors. Indeed, it is “a critical, irreplaceable input into our manufacturing process,” as Rodney Morgan of the Semiconductor Industry Association told a House of Representatives committee in February. It’s also used in rocket launches and for medical purposes, most notably in MRIs and laser surgery. And of course, there are few substitutes if you want to sound like a chipmunk.

The US government set up the Federal Helium Reserve in 1925 to produce and sell helium to meet the needs of the space and defense industries, which weren’t being met by private enterprise. By the 1990s, it had accumulated a huge amount of debt, mostly to other government agencies. So the government passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996 to pay back the debt and wind down the reserve. The debt is almost paid off, but the reserve still supplies a third of the world’s helium, and over 40% of the helium used in America.  And it makes money: Without it, the US treasury would lose some $430,000 in revenue every day.

So why does US Congress want to shut down a facility that makes money and is relied upon by both the private and defense sectors? As with most things involving American lawmakers, the explanation isn’t simple. Like the never-ending “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” that besiege American politics, helium is the victim of an automatic cut-off date stipulated by the Helium Privatization Act. Once the debt is repaid, which will happen by the end of this month, law mandates that the reserve has to shut down, despite its profitability and usefulness.

But the world is not ready for an abrupt shutdown of its biggest single supplier of helium. Congress hasn’t been entirely useless: the House of Representatives in April passed the Helium Stewardship Act, which allows the BLM to withdraw from the business in an orderly manner over the next decade. But it’s stuck in the Senate, where “concerns from at least one lawmaker prevented the chamber from approving a bill before recess,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet with fiscal debates taking up all of Congress’s time for the next month or two, other priorities, such as helium, are falling by the wayside.

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