New APS Veep Pushes for Helium Fixes

February 21, 2013

On a day when many were gifting their loved ones with pink and red Mylar balloons, APS Vice President Dr. Sam Aronson testified on behalf of APS regarding the importance of helium-4 in physics research.

The hearing was convened by the House Natural Resources Committee to consider new legislation that would, among other things, allow the continues sales of He-4 out of the federal reserve and to create an auction as a “price discovery” mechanism to sell the gas at an appropriate market price. Dr. Aronson testified in the second of three panels, alongside representatives from Micron Technology, Corning and Helium & Balloons Across America.

This was the second time in eight months that He-4 was the subject of a Congressional hearing: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee conducted its own hearing on the subject as well. Both S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, and the just-proposed H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act are bipartisan bills which seek to fix the extremely flawed mechanism for selling down the Federal government’s He-4 reserve by helping to identify the right market price and, in so doing, helping to alleviate the extreme price and supply fluctuations. S. 2374 did not pass during the last session, but the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Ron Wyden, plans to re-introduce a bill for consideration this year.

Chairman Hastings (courtesy of the Golden Dale Sentinel)

The key difference between the two bills is that the latter proposes an auction to set a market price for He-4 sales. As laid out the House bill, the mechanism is untested, and some fine-tuning may be necessary. What is certain is that a bill must be passed before the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to sell the He-4 out of the reserve runs out sometime this year. If that does happen, more than 50% of our nation’s He-4 supply will be taken off the market, further exacerbating the already extreme price and supply fluctuations.

During his testimony, Dr. Aronson discussed the critical nature of He-4 in a range of physics applications, including cool superconducting equipment for accelerators, particle detectors, research magnets, to operate measurement and diagnostic measurement and for devices used in astronomy and astrophysics studies. He highlighted the importance for Federal users and those who depend on Federal grants on the continued existence of the In Kind program offered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to provide priority access and pricing to those users. However, Dr. Aronson underscored that, despite the fact that large Federal users – the National labs – generally received their He-4 through the In Kind program, they were still at less than a 100% allocation. Oak Ridge and Argonne, for example, were only receiving about two-thirds of their allocation from suppliers. He also noted that small researchers continue to struggle with both extreme price fluctuations and supply shocks when they attempt to get He-4 for their work.

He concluded with an issue the House bill does not address: the future supply of He-4.

“While your focus has been on addressing the near term issue of supply from the Federal reserve, medium and long term supply issues should also be addressed sooner rather than later given that uses for helium are likely to increase, not decrease. Specifically, we believe it would make sense for the Department of Energy to examine the R&D opportunities to increase the efficiency of helium capture at the well-head or during liquefaction.”

Honing in on that suggestion, Committee member Cynthia Lummis (R-Wy) asked that APS assist her in coming up with some ideas related to more efficient wellhead capture of helium that she may consider as Chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy.

One thing is certain: Congress must act to prevent the BLM He-4 supply from being interrupted. In the words of Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), not doing anything would risk the U.S. floating off the helium cliff.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.