Senate passes bill to avert helium shortage

 WASHINGTON (AP) -- Break out the balloons.

Congress moved a step closer Thursday to averting an impending shutdown of the federal helium reserve, a key supplier of the lighter-than-air gas used in a products ranging from party balloons to MRI machines.

The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation's helium from a storage site near Amarillo, Texas, is set to shut down Oct. 7 unless lawmakers intervene. The shutdown is a result of a 1996 law requiring the reserve to pay off a $1.3 billion debt by selling its helium.

The debt is paid, but billions of cubic feet of helium remain. Closing the reserve would cause a worldwide helium shortage - an outcome lawmakers from both parties hope to avoid.

The Senate approved a bill Thursday, 97-2, to continue the helium program, following action in the House this spring.

Preserving access to the federal helium supply "prevents a shock to the health care sector and other critical industries that depend on helium," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said. "Protecting America's manufacturing base, its research capabilities, its health care system and its national security by temporarily extending the life of the (federal) helium program is just common sense."

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs in the United States depend on a reliable supply of helium.

If the federal government stops selling helium 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," Simpson said.

Micron Technology, a Boise-based semiconductor manufacturer, is among companies that depend on helium, Simpson said. The computer chip industry employs a quarter-million people nationwide, Simpson said.

The Senate bill approved Thursday differs slightly from a bill approved in the House in April. President Barack Obama favors the Senate version.

A statement by the White House called helium an essential resource for the aerospace industry and production of computer chips and optical fiber, as well as medical uses including MRI machines and medical lasers. Helium also is used in national defense applications such as rocket engine testing and purging, surveillance devices and scientific balloons.

"The impending abrupt shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many U.S. industries and disrupt national security programs,'" the White House said.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments

or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.

More National News
What to make of Tuesday's Obamacare rulings
What to make of Tuesday's Obamacare rulings

Find out the meaning of two different rulings on the Affordable Care Act issued just hours apart Tuesday

See how youth curfews compare in U.S. cities
See how youth curfews compare in U.S. cities

One of the largest cities in the country is getting ready to implement a stricter curfew for minors.

Scientists find new way to make human platelets
Scientists find new way to make human platelets

Scientists have discovered a new way to make human platelets, which could help patients worldwide who need blood transfusions.

Washington might be the capital of unhappiness
Washington might be the capital of unhappiness

Americans have a special obsession with happiness - it is written into our founding document. But the uniquely American pursuit of happiness…

Video: Do we only use 10 percent of our brains?
Video: Do we only use 10 percent of our brains?

You've probably heard the popular claim that humans only tap into about 10 percent of their brainpower.

Liberals lead the way on Super PAC donations
Liberals lead the way on Super PAC donations

This year’s award to the political donors with the deepest pockets goes to liberals. So far in 2014 the three largest donors to Super…

Tea party candidate targets Lamar Alexander
Tea party candidate targets Lamar Alexander

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s lengthy political resume is paradoxically his strongest selling point and perhaps his biggest liability as he…

Obamacare hit by appeals court ruling
Obamacare hit by appeals court ruling

A federal appeals court delivered a potentially serious setback to President Barack Obama's health care law Tuesday, imperiling billions…

George Harrison memorial tree killed by beetles
George Harrison memorial tree killed by beetles

A Los Angeles tree planted in 2004 to honor former Beatles member George Harrison was recently killed ... by actual beetles.

VA nominee McDonald goes before Congress
VA nominee McDonald goes before Congress

President Barack Obama's choice to lead the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department is going before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee…