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Toohey: Securing Helium Supply Is No Heavy Lift

Congress can strengthen advanced manufacturing, facilitate scientific research and increase revenues to the federal government, all with little controversy and debate. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, a simple fix to the operating guidelines of the Federal Helium Reserve will secure the supply of helium for advanced manufacturers and add millions to the federal Treasury this year.

Helium isn’t just for balloons; it’s a gas that has essential uses in a wide variety of advanced manufacturing sectors, including semiconductors, fiber optics, medical imaging, chemicals and aerospace. Because of its unique physical properties, it is also critical to scientific research. And it has important applications for the military, space exploration and other uses related to national security. Because of its strategic importance to the military, the U.S. established the Federal Helium Reserve in the 1920s, which now contains approximately 30 percent of helium supplies worldwide.

Unfortunately, the reserve is scheduled to stop supplying private entities later this year, which is contributing to a shortage of reliable helium supplies in the U.S. and having a major effect on advanced manufacturers.

The severe shortage is already having a detrimental effect on key industrial sectors. Semiconductor manufacturers — who design and produce the “chips” that are the foundation of all modern electronics — are now subject to a diminished “allocation” of helium. Other industrial and scientific users of helium are subject to similar limitations. In addition to supply shortages, the anticipated cessation of helium sales from the reserve has contributed to a dramatic price increase over the past several years.

This supply shortage has caused significant uncertainty in important industrial sectors and the research community, where there are no current substitutes for helium.

Congress can fix this problem quickly and easily. Under current law, the sale of helium from the reserve to private entities will stop later this year. By allowing the reserve to continue to operate, Congress can alleviate the supply shortages and inject approximately $350 million annually to the federal Treasury, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The good news is key congressional leaders are interested in addressing this issue. Last week, House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and ranking member Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (HR 527), bipartisan legislation to allow the reserve to continue to sell supply to private entities and ensure that helium is sold at market rates and in a more transparent manner. In the Senate, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the 112th Congress, and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are working on a bill that would achieve a similar outcome.

The semiconductor industry and other industrial and scientific users of helium support legislation to address the helium supply, and we urge Congress to make this a priority. The timing will be critical. Because of the need to secure supply contracts and ship helium for use at semiconductor fabrication facilities as well as other facilities, legislation must be enacted into law early this year to keep the Federal Helium Reserve operating as normal. However, this is not something that can be addressed at the eleventh hour. Users of helium must have some assurances now in order to secure continuous supplies for future operations, research and manufacturing.

Every day Congress faces numerous complex and contentious challenges, but this isn’t one of them. This is an easy problem to fix. Congress must act promptly by enacting legislation to address the helium supply.

Brian Toohey is president and CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association, the voice of the U.S. semiconductor industry in Washington, D.C.

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