House to pass bill lifting helium prices, production

The legislation could be the last legal tweak needed to bring to a close the federal government's decades-long dominance of the helium market. According to a report from the House Natural Resources Committee, which approved the bill in March, the program was created in 1925 to ensure the government had enough helium for defense purposes.

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For decades after, the government was the only producer of helium in the country until a 1960 law encouraged private production. Soon after, the government had so much helium it could sell some overseas, and the government became the largest global supplier of the gas.

By the 1990s, private demand for helium outstripped government demand, according to the report.

Helium is "essential to cooling and maintaining superconductive magnets on MRI machines, which accounts for more than a quarter of helium used in the United States," according to the committee report. "It is also used in semiconductor manufacturing, fiber optics, welding, LCD screens, rocket fuel, medical lasers, as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors and in scientific and other research."

In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the government to end its helium refining operations, and sell off much of its supply by 2015.

That law required the program to sell off helium at below-market prices to recover a $1.3 billion debt related to the creation of the helium. But that debt is expected to be paid off by this October, and the sale of helium at below-market prices has acted as a disincentive among private companies to preserve helium or look for new sources.

As a result, the federal program is currently at risk of stopping sales of helium this October, at a time when there are scant sources of domestic helium available.

The bill up next week seeks to fix this problem by requiring the government program to hold at least two helium auctions a year, which is aimed at ensuring the setting of market prices for helium. Sales would continue until there are three billion cubic feet of helium remaining — the reserve holds somewhere around 15 billion cubic feet now.

Once there are about three billion cubic feet left, the program will make some of that helium available to researchers and federal users.

The bill also gives a broader group of refiners access to the Bureau of Land Management's helium pipeline. There was criticism that the current system gave just a handful of refiners access to federal helium at below-market prices.