Wyden, Murkowski Ask for Clarity on End Date for Helium Program

Washington, D.C. – In a bipartisan letter, the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, incoming Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), requested the Department of the Interior clarify for the Committee, as well as industrial helium users, when commercial access to the Federal Helium Reserve will terminate.

Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996, authorizing the sale of crude helium from the Federal Helium Reserve until the Federal Helium Program’s debt is repaid. The helium reserve is expected to repay its debt to the federal government – and end sales to private customers – as early as March or April of this year according to the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for operating the program. However, current law may also allow the Interior Department to continue the helium program through the end of this fiscal year, September 30 – creating uncertainty as to when the program will end.

Terminating sales from the Federal Reserve could result in shortages of helium supplies which are necessary for a number of important activities – from the operation of medical imaging equipment to the manufacture of computer chips. Congress is considering legislation to extend the operation of the reserve.

“We recognize the importance of preventing a disruption of the helium supply chain that would impact many sectors of our society including health care, high-tech manufacturing, basic science research, and space missions,” the senators wrote. “It is our intention to address this issue quickly.”

The Federal Helium Reserve supplies about 40 percent of domestic and 30 percent of world helium demand. Congress created the Federal Helium Program in 1925 to ensure the supply of helium for military aircraft needs after World War I. 

The letter is below:

January 8, 2013

The Honorable Ken Salazar
Secretary
Department of Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240

Dear Secretary Salazar,

The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-273) authorizes the sale of crude helium from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve until repayment of the program’s debt is completed.  We are writing today for clarification of the effective date of termination of the Federal Helium Reserve should the Department receive sufficient funds to meet the repayment requirement.

In testimony before the Committee, the BLM Deputy Assistant Director for Minerals and Realty Management testified that BLM expected repayment to occur in FY 2013.  It is our understanding that this point could be reached as early as March or April of 2013.   On the other hand, the statute also directs the Secretary to reconcile the balances in the helium production fund “(w)ithin 7 days of the commencement of each fiscal year…” suggesting that the debt repayment would occur in October of 2013.

Responsible resource management of the Federal Helium Reserve is critical. Currently the Federal Helium Reserve supplies roughly 40 percent of domestic and 30 percent of the world helium demand. The Committee held a legislative hearing on May 10, 2012 to consider legislation to extend the Federal helium program.  We recognize the importance of preventing a disruption of the helium supply chain that would impact many sectors of our society including health care, high-tech manufacturing, basic science research, and space missions.  It is our intention to address this issue quickly.

We appreciate your timely consideration so that the Committee has the benefit of knowing the timetable for phase out of the program pursuant to current law.

Sincerely,                                                                                                                                                                             

Sen. Ron Wyden                                                                                                              Sen. Lisa Murkowski