Nation

Dwindling stockpile of helium causes concerns

Bill is pending in Congress to prevent shortage

WASHINGTON - Sure, Congress has plenty of crises to deal with: a weak economy, an expiring highway bill, the end-of-the-year “taxmageddon.’’ But now there’s another one floating into view.

The United States is running out of helium.

Thanks to a 1996 law that has forced the government to sell off its helium reserves at bargain-bin prices, the country’s stockpile of the relatively rare and nonrenewable gas could soon vanish.

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Party supply stores are already feeling the pinch, as helium shortfalls are driving up the price of balloons. But it’s not birthday parties we should worry about. A severe helium shortage, experts say, would cause problems for large swaths of the economy, from medical scanners to welding to the manufacturing of optical fibers and LCD screens.

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Congress is slowly grasping the extent of the problem. At a sleepy Senate hearing Thursday morning, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee listened to an array of experts chat about helium. The hearing was tied to a bill, sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, and John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, that would change how the government sells helium from its Federal Helium Reserve to prevent shortages.

So how did we get to this point? Back in the 1920s, when blimps and other airships seemed like a useful military technology, the United States set up a national helium program. In the 1960s, it opened the Federal Helium Reserve, an 11,000-acre site in the Hugoton-Panhandle Gas Field that spans Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

The porous brown rock is one of the only geological formations on Earth that can hold huge quantities of helium. And the natural gas from the field itself was particularly rich in helium - a relative rarity in the world.

By 1996, however, the Helium Reserve looked like a waste. Blimps no longer seemed quite so vital to the nation’s defense and, more important, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt after paying drillers to extract helium from natural gas.

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The Republican-led Congress, looking to save money, passed the Helium Privatization Act, ordering a sell-off by the end of 2014.

There was just one small hitch. According to a 2010 report by the National Research Council, the formula that Congress used to set the price for the helium was flawed. Bingaman has dubbed it a “fire sale.’’

Witnesses at the hearing painted apocalyptic scenes. Take, for instance, MRI scanners. Health-care experts have debated whether MRI scans are overused, but everyone agrees these machines are valuable.

Yet a helium shortage could ruin them. Tom Rauch, a health-care supply-chain manager for General Electric, explained that the powerful magnet in an MRI machine must be constantly cooled by liquid helium. Without timely refills, the magnets run the risk of permanent damage.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.