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Bingaman Floats Bill To Lift Big Helium

A rather lightweight piece of legislation was introduced to the U.S. Senate by Jeff Bingaman. The bill, S. 2374 has been written to protect Big Helium.

Yes, apparently, there is such a thing as Big Helium – or, at least, the helium industry is big enough to persuade U.S. senators to write legislation specifically designed for its benefit.

helium stewardship actS. 2374, also known as the Helium Stewardship Act, has been written to protect the helium industry from the consequences of the dissolution of the Federal Helium Reserve. The Federal Helium Reserve is a gigantic collection of the lighter-than-air gas, held in immense tanks underground, perhaps so that they don’t go floating away, outside of Amarillo, Texas.

The federal budget deficit has been ballooning for some time now, and sales from the Federal Helium Reserve could provide 1.3 billion dollars in revenue to reduce the deficit. Reducing the federal deficit is a good thing for the American people generally, but the helium industry is worried that the public good could cut into its profits.

If the Federal Helium Reserve were to sell off the vast amounts of helium it currently holds, the price of helium would drop. This would be a boon to medical researchers who use helium in their diagnostic equipment. Circuses and used car dealerships would also see their helium expenses reduced. The helium industry, however, would make less profit on every tank of helium sold.

(There’s also the risk that a sudden release of helium could temporarily raise the pitch of Americans’ voices, causing American men to become temporarily less attractive to foreign women, resulting in an imbalance in green card applications that could spread throughout the entire immigration system, as well as threatening family values.)

Of course, the helium industry has enjoyed moderately inflated helium prices in the past, thanks to the additional market pressure created by federal government purchases of helium. Maybe this is a case of what goes around comes around.

The idea of the influence of Big Helium sounds like a joke, but actually, the helium industry is tied to one of the most powerful – and profitable – industries in the nation: The oil and gas industry. Helium is most commonly found alongside natural gas, so it’s gas drilling companies that are involved in capturing helium and sending it to big refineries. The companies that are pumping out helium are part of an industrial network that’s got plenty of cash on hand – enough cash to survive a temporary market dip, and enough cash to gain the attention of members of Congress.

One thought on “Bingaman Floats Bill To Lift Big Helium”

  1. Bill says:

    I don’t have a position on (or even much knowledge regarding) Bingaman’s bill, but here’s a little background on helium, why it’s important, why we have a National Reserve for it, etc. This from my personal background as a scientist whose work in the past has sometimes critically required liquid helium.

    Being the lightest chemically unreactive gas, helium has a nasty habit of slipping away from our planet and leaking off into space. Not so for its equally light-weight little brother, hydrogen, which is extremely chemically reactive and so gets caught up in all sorts of heavy chemical compounds which won’t float off into outer space. And thus, helium has long been a pretty rare commodity on this planet, and will only become more rare with time.

    And that’s a problem, because helium is an extremely important material. It’s not just about birthday balloons and goof-balls making their voices squeak at parties. Liquid helium is the coolant of choice for superconductors, which are vital in particle physics, in medicine (MRIs), and elsewhere throughout the high-tech world. But it is easy to waste and hard to conserve helium (again, because it just slips away into space so easily). So that’s a problem: a vital material, in extremely short supply, and very, very easy to waste.

    The main…indeed, the only…important commercial source of helium is natural gas. What little helium that remains on this planet has gotten itself trapped in the same rock formations which trap natural gas underground, so the natural gas produced by gas wells always contains small amounts of helium. Companies which sell helium produce it by separating it from natural gas, but the vast majority of natural gas consumed on this planet has not had its helium separated from it first, so every time you use a gas-fired water heater or furnace or stove you’re wasting an incredibly precious helium resource.

    IIRC, it was back in about the 1980s that there was something of a helium panic in the U.S. At that time it looked as though the U.S. would be running out of natural gas sometime in the next few decades, which meant we would be running out of helium, as well. There are other substitutes for natural gas, but there is no substitute for helium, so the U.S. government rather wisely created a national helium reserve…a very smart move at the time.

    But that was then, and this is now. Today, ‘thanks’ to fracking technology, the U.S. now has well in excess of 100 years reserve of natural gas…and, thus, of helium. So I guess some folks are thinking that the national helium reserve isn’t as critically important as it once was. It is very hard to store helium for long periods (it leaks through the most microscopic cracks in plumbing and vessels) so it’s not like we can just hold onto our current helium reserve…it will have leaked away into space long before we actually need it.

    Please don’t dump on me for supporting fracking; I’m not at all sure that I do. I’m just trying to point out how it has changed the helium story here in the U.S. over the last couple of years.

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