Senators Introduce Bill to Protect Helium Supply

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Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark) have introduced bi-partisan legislation to delay the mandatory closing of the Federal Helium Reserve this year and ensure the government’s effort to privatize its supply of helium is more orderly.

The Reserve is a massive underground storage facility outside of Amarillo, Texas, that according to Senator Wyden today supplies 40 percent of the domestic and 30 percent of the global helium supply. The 1996 Helium Privatization Act mandated that the reserve must be closed and the supply sold off for at least $1.3 billion to compensate the government for setting up the supply in the first place.

However, because private suppliers of helium are not yet ready to fill the gap in the market that would be created when the largest single supplier — the U.S. government — exists the market, the price and supply of helium has been unstable for several years in anticipation of the closing of the Federal Helium Reserve. Shortages and high prices have hurt many industries that rely on helium, including MRI manufacturers that require liquid helium to cool the MRI’s magnets.

The Senate Bill,  S. 783 is a companion bill to the House bill H.R. 527, which was introduced in February by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash) and Ranking Member Edward “Ed” Markey (D-Mass) introduced the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527). S. 783 was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which Senator Wyden chairs.

“We need to act. It is important that we act now,” Senator Wyden urged in his comments on the floor of the Senate. “Our bottom line goal is to keep the Federal Helium Reserve open, until new sources of supply can be developed, and prevent significant disruptions to a number of critical U.S. industries.

The bill would also include mechanisms to ensure the government gets a fair and market-based price for the helium it sells off.

Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance Executive Director Gail Rodriguez praised the legislation in a statement on the organization’s website. “MITA applauds Senators Wyden and Murkowski for their leadership in introducing bipartisan legislation aimed at safeguarding access to the Federal Helium Reserve,” she stated. “With legislation now advancing in both the House and Senate, Congress is taking the right steps to preserve reliable access to helium, which is essential to the manufacturing and operation of life-saving medical imaging technologies that help thousands of American patients every day.”