Today, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and John Barrasso (R-WY), joined by co-sponsors Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), introduced legislation which lays out a responsible resource management strategy for the Federal Helium Reserve. The bipartisan Helium Stewardship Act (S. 2374) draws on recommendations from private helium refiners, retailers, end users, Bureau of Land Management officials and the National Academy of Sciences to address the most pressing problems facing our nation's helium industry.
Helium is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert chemical that exists only as a gas, except in extreme conditions. It has a range of uses, with its main commercial application being in MRI scanners. Its other industrial uses include as a pressurizing and purge gas for rockets, to make magnets for wind turbines, as a protective gas in arc welding and for growing crystals used to make microchips and fiber optic cables. (A well-known, but minor, use is as a "lifting gas" in balloons and blimps.)
Senator Bingaman: "This bipartisan bill will allow for the continued repayment of the national debt by selling helium at fair market prices. In addition to providing a good return on investment to American taxpayers, the legislation will boost the private helium sector and ensure the continued success of domestic manufacturers that use helium for industrial, scientific and medical purposes."
Senator Barrasso: "The National Helium Reserve provides a critical supply of helium for important technology -- including medical MRIs, fiber optic cables, microchips and semiconductors. It's currently unclear whether this supply of helium will remain available for sale in the next few years. Our legislation will ensure a stable supply of helium while encouraging the exploration and production of alternative sources of helium, such as those in Wyoming."
The Federal Helium Reserve is the world's only underground helium storage facility and is located near Amarillo, Texas. The reserve is connected by a Federal pipeline to private helium refiners in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Sales from the reserve supply roughly half of all domestic helium needs and one third of global helium demand each year.
Current law mandates essentially a "fire sale" of existing Federal helium assets to repay a $1.3 billion debt to the U.S. Treasury. The current sales structure distorts the private helium market and is creating uncertainty for industrial, Federal, medical and scientific users of helium. The Bingaman-Barrasso bill would remove this market distortion for the benefit of industry, private and Federal users.
The Helium Stewardship Act lays out a responsible resource management strategy for the Federal Helium Reserve, which is under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation does not authorize any new appropriations, and keeps the Federal Helium Program revenue positive through ongoing helium sales.