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Helium Bill Floats into Law

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress approved legislation to provide continued access to the Federal Helium Reserve. President Obama signed The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 (S. 527) into law on 2 October 2013. 

Helium is an essential component of a large number of manufacturing processes, including solar panels and silicon chips, and a key material for the scientific research community.

The Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, supplies approximately 40% of domestic and 30% of world helium. A 1996 law called for the reserve to shut down once its debt to the federal government was repaid, which was estimated to be 7 Oct. 2013. However, there currently are not sufficient private sources of helium or alternatives, and the reserve’s closure would have led to shortages and price spikes.

Although the legislation extends the life of the reserve, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) explained that the legislation “gets the government out of the helium business.” The bill establishes an auction for helium in the reserve and increases the amount sold each year as the federal government phases out its involvement.

Both the House and Senate agreed that extending access to the reserve was necessary but disagreements over how to use the proceeds from the helium sales pushed the final agreement until just weeks before the deadline. In the end, the bill uses proceeds to fund the Secure Rural Schools Program and park maintenance, reduce the federal debt, mitigate damage associated with abandoned oil and gas wells and mines, and reduce the royalty rate for soda ash.

GSA joined other leading scientific societies, universities and industries to support action to maintain access to this important resource. (see letters to the House and Senate). For additional background on the legislation, see former GSA-USGS Congressional Fellow Kelly Kryc’s article What’s up with helium in the January 2013 GSA Today.

— Kasey White