Wyden, Murkowski Introduce Legislation to Ensure Access to Federal Helium Supply, Announce Hearing on Bill

April 23, 2013

Washington, D.C. – Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today introduced legislation that would prevent a shortage in the helium supply by providing continued access to the Federal Helium Reserve.

The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 would allow the Federal Helium Reserve to continue operating in three phases.  In the first phase, the reserve would largely operate as it is now under the current system through September 30, 2014. The bill ensures a smooth transition away from federal ownership by establishing an auction of 10 percent of the helium in the reserve, beginning in fiscal year 2015, with an additional 10 percentage points added to the auction every year.  In the third phase, the reserve would continue to operate only to supply federal customers. Helium is important to a wide range of critical sectors of the U.S. economy, including semiconductor and fiber optics-manufacturing, medical diagnostics, welding, aerospace and federal research and development.

Under current law, the Federal Helium Reserve will close its doors the first week of October, when the program’s debt will be repaid, the Interior Department told Wyden and Murkowski, in response to a January letter.

“The committee is putting this bill on the fast track because it’s critical to make sure the Federal Helium Reserve stays open to prevent serious disruptions to U.S. industries,” Wyden said. “Helium is a key element in fields ranging from semiconductor manufacturing to MRIs, which is why Senator Murkowski and I are working to keep the reserve afloat and to ensure a fair return to taxpayers for sales of federal helium.”

“Introduction of this bill represents an important step towards enacting legislation related to the Federal Helium Reserve,” Murkowski said. “I am confident that, continuing to work with Chairman Wyden, we can pass legislation that avoids further disruption of the helium supply, provides a fair return to taxpayers, and establishes a common sense approach to managing the Reserve as it is depleted.”

The committee will hold a legislative hearing to receive testimony on the bill on May 7, at 9:30 a.m. in Senate Dirksen 366. Witnesses will be announced when available and the hearing will be webcast on the committee’s website at www.energy.senate.gov.

The Federal Helium Reserve supplies about 40 percent of domestic and 30 percent of world helium demand. The alternatives for helium are limited and often nonexistent. The abrupt closure of the reserve to commercial and federal customers would disrupt major parts of the U.S. economy.

In March, the senators released a discussion draft of the bill to gather input from stakeholders.

The bill text, a one-page summary, and a section-by-section discussion of the legislation are attached.