How the "Helium Cliff" Could Shatter America's Tech World


In another excellent example of just how dysfunctional America's political system has become, there is a legitimate chance that Congress could fail to pass a no-brainer piece of legislation that would prevent a major blow to our economy. When I say "no-brainer," I'm talking about the kind of bill that, if killed, would drive up prices of everything from consumer electronics to life-saving MRIs (and God knows health care is expensive enough already). I'm talking no-brainer like it passed the House in May by unanimous vote (other than Rep. Linda Sanchez pushing the "nay" button by accident). The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources made equally short work of it in June, but as of now, it's not scheduled to be brought to the floor. I'm talking about a bill that is virtually non-controversial in substance, but that is threatened for the same reason you've likely never heard about it recently: it has nothing to do with Syria or Obamacare.

While our politicians are trying to figure out what in the world to do with Assad and Putin and simultaneously going to partisan war over a potential government shutdown, let's hope Congress finds a spare minute to keep one of our most valuable geological resources from literally evaporating. I'm talking about ... helium.

If you're a patriot looking for something, anything in which America is still the unquestioned top dog, helium production is it. The United States is the source of a whopping 75% of the entire world's supply of the element, and fully 30% of the global supply comes from us. Federal Helium Reserve (FHR) outside Amarillo, Texas. If you're like me, you probably thought the gas was mostly for party balloons, but its chemical properties make it essential for all kinds of technical contexts. Back in 1925, America saw the need for helium in aerospace and defense manufacturing and established the Federal Helium Program. Fast forward to 1996. The reservoir was $1.3 billion in debt, so Congress voted to sell off the federally-owned stockpile to private industry to pay it down, closing the program thereafter. 

Well, now the FHR is slated to pay the remainder of its tab on September 30, but private industry hasn't yet picked up the slack on extraction of helium, despite huge demand in industries like healthcare and semiconductors. Shutting it down wouldn't just mean killing the annual production of 2 billion cubic feet of helium; it would mean that the 13 billion cubic feet already stored there would become inaccessible. All that helium would then deteriorate in quality and become worthless. In other words, if the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 doesn't get passed by the end of the month, there will be a whole lot of buyers left without their biggest seller. That means an already troublesome shortage could become severe enough to send significant price-spike ripples all the way to the average consumer. Big name tech companies like Samsung, Intel, and General Electric know this, so they've been aggressively lobbying in favor of the law.

Worried it sounds like something we can't afford right now? The facility isn't some bloated bureaucratic mess; the Bureau of Land Management employs less than 50 people at the FHR. Uneasy about government interference in the helium market? The end goal is still full privatization, but the act would give it a much-needed extension to 2015. The bill also changes the pricing mechanism to reflect the market accurately, rather than be set arbitrarily by the BLM. Everyone wins here.

Senate Energy Committee press secretary Keith Chu says he's "pretty confident" the Senate will get its act together and beat the deadline, but am I crazy for thinking "pretty confident" isn't the appropriate level of dedication here? Just put it to a roll-call vote already, and then we can all go back to bickering as usual. Otherwise, all those semiconductors running iOS 7 may soon cost a whole lot more.