Helium helped the United States close the dirigible gap with Nazi Germany. It propelled NASA spaceward. But now, the nation is selling off its vast helium reserve — in such a ham-fisted way that it’s led to a shortage of the gas.
In 1996, a cost-cutting Republican Congress passed legislation requiring the government to get rid of most of its massive helium stockpile, which is located underground near Amarillo, Texas, the self-proclaimed helium capital of the world. NASA, Congress proclaimed, would have to get its helium from private operators instead.
It may have seemed like a noble idea; after all, the helium reserve’s debts had ballooned to $1.4 billion, and the very idea of the reserve was easy to lampoon as a quintessential example of waste. But the government has so much helium — and under the legislation, has had to sell it off at such arbitrarily low prices — that the sale is instead destabilizing the private helium industry it was meant to help.
As a result, there are now shortages. In Texas, one party supply chain is reportedly filling balloons with only 60 percent helium, instead of 100 percent. Much more importantly, advanced medical equipment like MRIs depends on access to helium, but one MRI manufacturer testifed before Congress earlier this month that MRI machines were being filled with smaller amounts each service visit.
The 1996 law reflected a yearning to privatize, instead of a well-considered strategy. Congress needs to fix the mess now, and devise a strategy based on the nation’s needs — not an ideological agenda.