Amid the din of headline-grabbing debates in Washington, DC, one looming threat has floated largely out of the public eye: the impending shortage of helium, a critical gas that is used for far more than just party balloons.
Without prompt congressional action, this helium shortage will harm many industrial and scientific users and undermine critical manufacturing, healthcare, and research operations across the country. Instead of the Fiscal Cliff, call it the Helium Cliff.
Helium is an essential component in the advanced manufacturing process for a number of products, including semiconductors -- the chips that control all modern electronics. It also has critical applications for scientific research and numerous other products and technologies, including medical devices like MRI machines, chemicals, aerospace, and fiber optics. The sectors that rely on helium spur innovation, boost economic growth, and employ millions of people.
The Federal Helium Reserve -- established in the 1920s and operated by the federal government ever since -- contains about one-third of the world's helium supply and roughly 40 percent of America's supply. Under current law, on Oct. 7, the reserve will no longer be allowed to sell helium to the companies and scientists that depend on it. That means Congress has only about 12 legislative days to fix this problem by enacting legislation to reauthorize the sale of helium.
Fortunately, there is a legislative effort under way in Congress to avoid the Helium Cliff, but the clock is ticking. Lawmakers should act swiftly to approve it. In April, the House of Representatives passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (HR 527) nearly unanimously. And in June, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the Helium Stewardship Act (S 783) with strong bipartisan support.
Both bills would ensure that semiconductor manufacturers have a reliable supply of helium by allowing the reserve to continue selling helium to private entities. Doing so would strengthen advanced manufacturing, enable continued scientific research, and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenue to the federal government.
The main political hurdle facing this legislation is the question of how to use the new federal revenue from helium sales. The bill approved by the House would devote all of the new funds to deficit reduction, while the Senate bill would devote $51 million to deficit reduction and the remainder to various programs. The debate over the use of these funds adds complexity to an issue that otherwise has strong bipartisan support.
While enacting helium legislation would be a net financial gain for the government, the costs of inaction would be significant. As helium grows scarcer and more expensive, manufacturers likely will be forced to explore costly and difficult options to maintain production without helium. Researchers could be forced to abandon projects. Consumers will likely face higher prices for many technology products, and patients may be forced to miss a required diagnosis from an MRI machine.
To avoid these damaging and unnecessary consequences, Congress must swiftly enact legislation that reauthorizes the sale of helium. Here's how you can help: Contact your senators and ask them to pass S 783 now and work with the House to get bipartisan helium legislation to the president for his signature before Oct. 7. With prompt action, we can avert the Helium Cliff and maintain America's global scientific and technology leadership.
Brian Toohey is president and CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association.