The Helium Bill: What did Congress do?

Chris Spitzer
Sep 29, 2013
With less than one week to go before an October 7th deadline to avert a massive helium shortage, Congress finally took action. On September 26th, they passed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 to keep open the Federal Helium Reserve, which provides about half of the U.S. supply. The bill is now on its way to the President to be signed into law. I outlined the helium problem in a previous post -- here I’ll take a look at what will soon become law.

A game of Congressional tennis

Even the hardiest Congressional fan might have had difficulty following the travails of the helium bill. There were two versions that differed significantly: the House-passed H.R. 527 and the Senate Energy Committee’s S. 783. On September 19th, in the midst of debating energy efficiency, the Senate took a vote on H.R. 527, but only after replacing the body of the bill with the text from S. 783. This passed 97-2. The holdouts were Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), who would get attention a few days later for a 21-hour attempt to filibuster healthcare. A week later the House made a few changes and sent it back to the Senate, where the final version passed by unanimous consent. At the end of the day, the text of the final bill is very close to the original Senate version though it bears a different bill number.

What does it do?

The main goal of the bill is to make a gradual move from a fixed price for helium to a market-based price, and, eventually, to fully privatize the market. Ten percent of the helium that is sold by the Reserve in fiscal year 2015 (which begins in October 2014) will be auctioned, and that fraction will increase by fifteen percent each fiscal year through FY 2019. After this, most of the remaining gas will be auctioned and the market will be fully in control of the price. The last 3 billion cubic feet -- enough to meet federal demand for a few years -- will be reserved for federal users, including grant recipients. Finally, the government will sell all the Reserve assets by September 2021. This timeline is supposed to give private suppliers time to get ready to handle the demand.

To help ensure that the U.S. has a secure supply in the future, the bill requires the Department of the Interior and the US Geological Survey to report on reserve and price levels and to develop a strategy to ensure that federal users can get the helium for critical uses. It also directs the Department of Energy to research new ways to separate helium from natural gas streams.

As a bonus, running a helium reserve is a money-maker. After paying for Reserve operations and the research mentioned above, Congress decided that the remaining money should pay for some non-helium programs. The bill directs $110 million of the proceeds to remediate abandoned wells and mines on federal property, $50 million to maintain National Parks, $51 million to retire public debt, and extends the Secure Rural Schools program. It also reduces the royalties charged to producers of soda ash (better known as sodium bicarbonate) to help them compete against the Chinese.

Passing legislation is a messy process. Luckily we can now celebrate with some helium-filled balloons.

The image is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Spitzer

Chris is a AAAS Science and Technology Fellow in the State Department, and a former AIP/AVS Congressional Fellow in the office of Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Follow me on twitter.

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