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The Senate voted 97–2 last Thursday to approve a bill designed to allow the U.S. government to continue selling its stockpiled helium. The House approved a similar bill last April by a vote of 394–1. So Congress has averted the big helium shortage looming next month, right?

Nope. The Federal Helium Reserve, which supplies 42 percent of U.S. production and 35 percent of global production, is still scheduled to stop selling helium next month. The gas, required for cooling MRI machines, will get much scarcer and more expensive in a couple of weeks unless Congress can work together in a bipartisan way to fix a serious but easily solvable problem.


We’ve reported on this issue several times, most recently last month. The government created the helium reserve back in 1925, when the gas was needed mostly for dirigibles. A 1996 law directed the Federal Helium Program to sell off the gas until the $1.3 billion spent on it over the years had been recouped, then shut down the program entirely. Since then, MRI and other scientific and technical uses have greatly boosted the demand for helium. So the shutdown, which would occur next month, would seriously disrupt the world supply.

Intense lobbying by the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance and other interested parties spurred the Senate to action last week. That’s good. However, said Representative Doc Hastings, R-Washington (as quoted by Science magazine):

Differences in deficit reduction and spending will need to be resolved.

Given the current climate in Congress, that’s bad.

The Senate bill would change the helium auction process, aiming at a return closer to the market rate than the current artificially low price. It also would use the proceeds from helium sales—about $140 million a year—for maintenance at national parks and other projects. House Republicans want the money to go toward deficit reduction.

We’ll see what happens. And we’ll keep our fingers crossed that something actually WILL happen.

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