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House Hearing on Helium Supply

Richard M. Jones
Number 105 - July 27, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“We may be heading for a crisis in many industries if we don’t face up to this issue” warned Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), Ranking Member on the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee at a July 20 hearing on the nation’s helium supply.  Holt’s opening comment came at the start of a hearing entitled “Helium: Supply Shortages Impacting our Economy, National Defense and Manufacturing" that received testimony from an official of the Department of the Interior and industrial and scientific witnesses.

This was the second hearing that has been held this year on the nation’s supply of helium, driven by the very real concern that a legislative mandate will worsen already significant supply and price fluctuations.  In May, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012.  This 15-page bill, introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) would require changes in the management of the nation’s federal helium reserve in Texas.  Indicative of the interest there is in this problem are the nineteen Democratic and Republican senators, with a wide range of political philosophies, who have cosponsored this bill.

The July 20 House hearing demonstrated similar bipartisan concern.  In his opening comments, Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) spoke of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) helium reserve and its impending closure, calling helium “vital to national security,” and warning of the “significant economic disruption” there will be to American manufacturers.  Of note, he spoke of a global shortage of Helium-3.  “The impending shortage of helium and H-3 could have disastrous consequences for U.S. industries that are dependent on helium to innovate, manufacture, and provide jobs for Americans,” Lamborn said.  “Having identified these issues, the question is what is the solution?  Clearly, Congress cannot simply allow this huge economic dislocation and national security threat, when action can be taken on alternatives.  However, neither can Congress simply continue along in the process that has resulted in this critical juncture.”

The first witness was Timothy Spisak, an official of the BLM.  He described the establishment of the Federal Helium Reserve, the world’s “only significant long-term storage facility for crude helium.”  Starting in 1920, Congress passed a series of laws that manage this resource, the last of which mandates the sale of nearly all helium in the reserve by 2015 to repay an earlier debt incurred by the facility.  Spisak estimates this debt will be repaid by March 2013.  In concluding his testimony, Spisak told the subcommittee “The BLM welcomes further discussion about the Federal helium program and the BLM’s role in meeting future helium needs for the country, especially for Federal agencies that depend on helium for scientific research, aerospace projects, and defense purposes.”

One of those testifying was Professor N. Phuan Ong of the Physics Department of Princeton University.  “Liquid helium is vitally important for the two largest subfields of physics, condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics,” he said.  His condensed-matter group, one of seven to ten major liquid helium user research groups at Princeton, utilizes approximately 10,000 to 15,000 liters of liquid helium annually.  About thirty other universities have similar needs, in addition to thirty universities with smaller requirements.  The National High Magnetic Field Laboratories, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory have very large liquid helium requirements.  For example, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Florida uses 720,000 liters of liquid helium annually.  “Liquid helium nurtures the health of this community” Ong told the subcommittee.  This helium comes at a steep price.  Ong estimates that a typical $100,000 yearly grant from the National Science Foundation might require $50,000 of liquid helium, which he characterized as an “absurd amount.”

While helium is a very common component of natural gas in many (but not all) locations, the economics of its extraction depends on its concentration.  There was concern on both sides of the witness table that the United States could become dependent on foreign suppliers.  In response to rising prices and shortages, helium users are moving toward recapture and recovery facilities which are both very technical and expensive.  Ong described a $1.5 million, 90% recovery rate facility at Princeton that is expected to pay for itself in ten years.  Holt complimented Ong on his “very telling testimony” and how important helium is to an “important segment of users.”

Holt and several other representatives are working on a draft helium bill that he hopes will have bipartisan support.  “We face a difficult problem here because this is an unusual resource that is important in so many ways,” he said, “adding “we will wrestle with how to handle this.”  In closing the hearing, Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) commented on the importance of helium, saying “This is about innovation.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics