July 17, 2013
Efforts by Congress to improve the supply of helium to users, including the scientific community, is inching toward a conclusion after more than a year of intensive efforts by APS and other end users. Without new legislation, the authority of the Bureau of Land Management to continue to sell helium ends when its debt is repaid on Oct. 7. To prevent the consequential market disruptions and highly damaging effects on R&D, two congressional committees of jurisdiction — the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — have drafted legislation that must be passed and signed into law before the October deadline.
The House of Representatives recently passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527), which would establish an auction mechanism to permit the sell-off of the federal helium reserve, except for 3 billion cubic feet to be held back for federal use. The bill was approved by the House on April 26. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved its version of the bill, The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 (S. 783), on June 18. The bills differ on a number of key points, including the pace at which the helium would be auctioned off. The Senate bill slows the auction process down to allow for a longer transition to a market-based system.
Two critical steps remain until the bill reaches President Obama’s desk.
First, the Senate must consider S. 783 on the floor and vote on it either during the very few legislative days remaining before the August recess or when Congress reconvenes in September when it is likely to be consumed with avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year and addressing the debt ceiling. Despite op-eds and news articles that have warned of the looming problem, many members Congress do not appreciate the urgency of the helium legislation. Should that sentiment persist through the Oct. 7 deadline, there is a risk that more than 50 percent of the nation’s helium supply will be unavailable after that date.
The second crucial step is a House-Senate conference to resolve any differences. The pace at which the auction of the helium occurs could become a stumbling block.
APS continues to participate in a small coalition of helium end users in the high-tech industry that has been working with Senate and House staff to ensure user concerns are adequately addressed in the proposed legislation. APS has also been working to strengthen provisions related to the “In-Kind” program that benefits the research community.
Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.