April 28, 2013

Program begun in blimp era is hard to cut

Many wish to see the Federal Helium Program end, but what about ensuing shortages?

By DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD/The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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Dirigibles were in demand around 1930, when this one was photographed. A government reserve of the helium that is used to fill them is still maintained today.

The Associated Press

Finally, in 1996, Congress passed a law that said it wouldn't be. The law required the reserve to sell off helium until it had paid off a more than $1 billion debt to other agencies. Then its time would be up.

Time is up. The debt will be paid off soon, although the program has about five years' worth of helium in the ground.

And that looks less like a victory and more like a disaster.

"All of a sudden, you basically take away 40 percent of the supply" of helium, said Moses Chan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and a de facto spokesman for scientists who use helium in their research. The gas is valuable in labs because it is stable at very low temperatures. "That would just be chaos."

In recent weeks, Congress has heard a chorus of such worries. MRI machines and semiconductor plants, which both rely on helium, might be affected. And yes, balloons might cost more.

There is an argument about how this happened.

Congress says private industry simply didn't step up to supply more helium, in part because the federal government was selling its helium so cheaply. In industry, it's said that there has been a spike in demand for helium, and that finding new supplies isn't easy. That requires drilling in a certain kind of natural gas field, where helium comes up along with the gas.

All sides, however, seem to agree on the solution.

The helium program can't die.

Both bills in Congress seek to alter the program as they save it, to raise more money by selling the gas closer to market price. And both anticipate closing down the reserve. They are confident the private sector will be ready soon. There is hope in particular for a new helium plant going online in Wyoming.

So, how much longer will it take?

"Five years? We don't know," Hastings said in a telephone interview. "It could be shorter than that. It could be longer."


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