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Helium Bill Needed to Maintain U.S. Economic and Scientific Strength | Commentary

The commentary “Blimps and Budgets: The Helium Reserve Isn’t Broken” erroneously criticizes the need for legislation to continue sales of helium from the Federal Helium Reserve and ignores the legislation’s benefits to U.S. taxpayers and America’s leading industries and scientific researchers. It also ignores the fact that the 1996 bill created more problems than it solved. Congress has a chance to get it right this time.

The author asserts that bipartisan legislation approved unanimously in the House and a version approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee “are trying to fix a program that isn’t broken.” This assertion ignores the significant disruption to advanced manufacturing and research in the United States that would result from a failure to enact legislation before the October deadline. It also overlooks the conclusions of the National Academies of Sciences and the inspector general of the Department of Interior, both of which called for reform of the federal helium program. The legislation passed in the House and being considered in the Senate would address both issues.

The legislation would restructure the helium program to make it more market-based, leading to an estimated $400 million to $500 million in savings for U.S. taxpayers. These bills would provide continued access to the government’s valuable helium reserve for America’s advanced manufacturing sector and research community in a time when private sector supplies are not currently available.

The Federal Helium Reserve supplies 40 percent of the helium used in the United States. Legislation to provide an orderly and gradual reduction of the Bureau of Land Management’s helium to the U.S. market is urgently needed to avoid a chaotic disruption of supplies of this critical material for strategic uses such as rocket propulsion and scientific research and a range of advanced manufacturers of medical devices, semiconductors, fiber optics, aerospace and other essential products for America’s economic growth and leadership.

We urge Congress to act promptly in passing and reconciling these bills in advance of the October deadline. Contrary to the sarcastic claim in the article, this issue is certainly not just about blimps, but about avoiding a harmful disruption of supply to national defense, scientific research and critical industries that drive our country’s economic and scientific strength.

Moses Chan is an Evan Pugh Professor of physics at Penn State University.

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