Hang on to your balloons! The helium cliff is nigh.

Earlier this spring, there was a rare bipartisan flurry of activity around something almost every legislator could agree on: Avoiding a sudden lapse in the national supply of helium.

After years of warnings about rising worldwide demand, Congress remembered that a 1996 law demanded the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve--a vast underground lake of gas that stretches from Texas to Kansas--just as soon as it paid off the cost of its creation. That will happen at the end of this fiscal year, October 1. If nothing changes, the rest of the 10 billion cubic feet would have to stay underground, cutting off 40 percent of U.S. consumption, while the cost goes through the roof.


The nation's helium landscape, as of 2010. (Air Products and Chemicals, Inc).

In April, the House made short work of a bill that would keep the program operating. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources followed suit in June. And then: Nothing. Congress leaves for recess today, and no vote is scheduled; the Senate leadership office didn't return calls for confirmation on whether the bill would be brought to the floor.

And that's making the folks who run the helium reserve very nervous.

"We are contingency planning for a shutdown of the Amarillo facility," said regional Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Donna Hummel, referring to the program's 47-person office. "We will be providing notices to employees of Amarillo, private refiners and storage contract holders--companies that store their helium in our reservoir. If we shut this down, you can imagine some consequences there."

Yeah, no kidding. Helium isn't just a party gas--it's also used in a wide range of advanced manufacturing processes, like making computer chips and optical fibers, as well as research and medical procedures, like cooling magnets for MRIs and visualizing lung tissue. That's why corporations like Intel lined up to push for the helium reserve's continued operation, along with private refiners that use pieces of the federal infrastructure. Then there are all the government users--scores of universities and military agencies that get a special rate on helium for things like rocket systems and chemical warfare testing. Most of us owe some piece of our daily lives to helium, without even realizing it.

That wasn't the case in the mid-1990s, when Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, giving the Bureau of Land Management a date certain for when it would have to get out of the business. Technically, that isn't until 2015, but the reserve ended up selling off enough helium to pay back the $1.3 billion loan at a faster-than-anticipated clip.

"Our good work is being punished," sighs Hummel. "We should've dragged our feet a little bit, because we really had two years."

The Senate bill does solve the problem at least in the short term, allowing the Amarillo office to live off its own revenue selling helium until it gets down to 3 billion cubic feet, which will be retained for federal use. After that, Amarillo will be reduced to a skeleton staff (an earlier reduction in force got rid of most of the younger employees, so most are nearing retirement anyway). And then, the feds will manage helium extraction on government-owned land just like any other natural resource, like natural gas (of which helium is actually a byproduct).

This looming funding cutoff has nothing to do with sequestration, the across-the-board set of reductions that have hit the rest of the federal government. But the BLM is taking lessons from Congress' seeming inability to accomplish basic tasks, and worrying a lot about alternatives in the event that the Senate doesn't pass its bill by the end of September.

"We believe that we have no discretion. So now we are looking towards every avenue," says Hummel. "There's not a day in the last several weeks when someone hasn't had an idea. The Act is very specific in its requirements--we've yet to find any nuggets of flexibility....I think it they knew then what we knew now, they would've written in some escape clauses."

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Neil Irwin | August 2, 2013