Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today applauded the Senate's passage of legislation that ensures continued access to the federal helium supply, prevents a shock to the health care sector and other critical industries that depend on helium. The bill then requires the federal government to phase out its involvement in the helium sector over the next 10 years.
Helium is a critical element to industries including medical diagnostics equipment, aerospace and federal research and development and semiconductor and fiber optics-manufacturing. The Federal Helium Reserve supplies about 40 percent of domestic and 30 percent of world helium demand. The alternatives for helium are limited and often nonexistent. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 97 to 2. It now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed a similar measure earlier this year.
"Protecting America's manufacturing base, its research capabilities, its health care system, and its national security by temporarily extending the life of the BLM helium program is just common sense," Wyden said. "This legislation keeps the Federal Helium Reserve afloat, allows a fair return to taxpayers for sales of federal helium, and then gets the government out of the helium business for good."
"Passage of this bipartisan bill will ensure that the Federal Helium Reserve -- which is responsible for meeting 40 percent of our domestic helium needs -- continues to provide this critical material to the American businesses that depend on it," Murkowski said. "This legislation establishes a commonsense approach to managing the federal reserve as it is depleted, ensures that taxpayers receive a fair return, and puts us on a path towards ending the federal government's involvement in this sector."
Wyden and Murkowski introduced the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 -- now the High Technology Jobs Preservation Act -- in April to provide continued access to the Federal Helium Reserve -- which would otherwise be required to close its doors the first week of October, when the program's debt to the federal government would be repaid, according to the Interior Department.
The bill prevents a shock to the market by allowing the Federal Helium Reserve to continue operating in three phases. In the first phase, the reserve operates as it is now under the current system through September 30, 2014. The bill ensures a smooth transition away from federal ownership by establishing an auction of 10 percent of the helium in the reserve, beginning in fiscal year 2015, with an additional 15 percentage points added to the auction every year. In the third phase, the reserve would continue to operate only to supply federal customers.
The measure uses proceeds from sales of federal helium to fund important priorities, including the Secure Rural Schools Program, reducing the federal debt, funding park maintenance, cleaning up abandoned oil wells, restoring funds for the Abandoned Mine Land Program and reducing the royalty rate for soda ash.