Following a 394-1 vote two weeks ago by the House of Representatives to pass the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, the Senate began looking at this issue this week with a hearing in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. This is a promising sign for an issue that will affect numerous domestic industries if Congress does not act by the end of this fiscal year.
Helium is a necessary and irreplaceable element for semiconductors, fiber optics, MRIs, and many other high-tech processes and scientific research needs. Intel’s Carolyn Duran, Ph.D., Director of Chemical Risk and Compliance, Global Sourcing and Procurement, had this to say while testifying at Tuesday’s hearing:
|[H]elium is one gas that is used pervasively throughout the process, and without it, our factories would not operate. This is true for all semiconductor manufacturing, not just Intel…Due to prior shortages, over the past several years Intel and other manufacturers have worked to replace helium with alternatives, such as argon or nitrogen, where possible….When helium is utilized for its low boiling point, as in MRI’s and condensed matter physics, there simply are no substitutes.|
This would not be a huge problem, were it not for the fact that the U.S. government hold’s 30% of the world’s helium supply -- 40 percent of the U.S. helium supply -- and the private sector is not prepared at this time to make up the difference if this source were taken out of the market. This is a point Gail Collins aptly made in her article, An Ode to Helium, which appeared in the May 3 New York Times.
|If the reserve closes now, the country loses 40 percent of its helium supply. So, last week, the House voted to extend the program…The helium reserve, by the way, is still going to run dry in five or 10 years. Maybe private enterprise will step up to the plate. But if not, somebody’s going to have to organize one hell of a balloon recycling program.|
Domestic industry is already struggling with supply instability, and losing such a significant portion of the domestic supply would be disastrous. Again, from Dr. Duran’s testimony:
|While the exact results cannot be known, I can say with confidence that it would be disruptive to an already tenuous supply line. The semiconductor industry, already realizing shortages, would be directly impacted. If the supply were to be disrupted for a significant amount of time, the resulting shutdown of our manufacturing facilities would directly impact the overall economy. A shortage impacting our industry will have a broad impact to the very industries that rely on our products, including health care, transportation and the energy sectors.|
What does all this ultimately mean? Without Congressional action in the next 5 months, the tech sector, and other sectors that depend on helium will be facing soaring prices and supply shortages when the Federal Government’s authority expires on October 7. It is imperative Congress act to continue operation of the Federal Helium Reserve until the private sector can meet the helium needs of domestic industry. Like the House bill, with a few tweaks to ensure there are no supply disruptions, the Senate bill recognizes the need stabilize the domestic helium supply. The Senate has taken a good first step to follow on the positive action in the House, but a bill is far from being sent to the president’s desk.