Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson today supported H.R. 527, legislation that would address the impending closure of the Federal Helium Reserve later this year by allowing it to continue supplying helium while also reforming our nation's helium policy.
The Federal Helium Reserve was created in 1926 to ensure a steady helium supply for the nation's defense needs. However, federal demand did not live up to expectations, and by the 1990's, the Reserve had accrued a $1.3 billion debt. In 1996, Congress passed reforms to require the sale of the Federal Helium Reserve by 2015.
The Reserve is expected to pay off the debt earlier than expected, by October 2013, without having sold off all of the helium. As a result, the Reserve, by law, will close and no longer have the authority to sell the remaining 11 billion cubic feet of helium. This will create an immediate worldwide helium shortage and cut the domestic supply in half.
"Thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs in the United States depend on a reliable supply of helium," Simpson said. "If the Reserve stopped making helium available for sale to private entities, a significant delay might not just slow the production of computer chips, but the computers, life-saving medical devices, and weapons systems that they power."
Micron Technology, based in Boise, is a large semiconductor manufacturer and a global leader in computer memory technology. Micron has been working to develop alternatives to helium, but for some processes, has been unable to find another option. Semiconductor manufacturing is a complex process which can take weeks and use hundreds of processes to make a single chip. It requires sophisticated equipment and techniques developed by the world's leading scientists and engineers.
"The semiconductor industry is not only considered a key American industry, but it is vital to our Idaho economy," said Simpson. "This industry employs a quarter million people nationwide, and it is one of our largest exports."
H.R. 527 establishes a phased-in process for the sale of helium from the Reserve. Phase 1 will continue Reserve operations as they are under current law for one year to ensure a stable and secure supply of helium in the near term. Phase 2 will establish auctions for helium sales. Revenue from the auctions will go towards operating the Reserve, with any excess directed to the general Treasury; and Phase 3 will reserve the last remaining 3 billion cubic feet of helium for federal national security and scientific needs.
H.R. 527 passed in the House 394-1 and now moves to the Senate for consideration.