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Helium Deadline Hangs over the Economy

We’re in the middle of summer and, as usual during this travel season, gas prices have been rising.  Thankfully, we haven’t seen the severe volatility in gas prices like we have in summers past, but most of us can recall from recent memory when an international crisis or environmental incident affected the U.S. oil supply – some kind of source disruption that curtailed a small percentage of our nation’s supply – and gasoline prices at the pump soared. 

Now imagine how bad things could get if 40 or 50 percent of the nation’s oil supply were taken off the market.  Dramatic supply shortages likely would trigger rationing, astronomical price increases, and an economic slowdown.  

A similar troubling scenario could play out in the near future for another commodity that’s increasingly critical for the economy and especially for the U.S. technology sector -- helium.  Helium is an essential and irreplaceable element for manufacturing fiber optic cable, semiconductor chips, many medical devices, as well as for operating MRI machines and conducting research.  The federal government controls roughly 40 percent of the world’s helium supply, and sells much of it to the private sector.  Unfortunately, the authorization for the government to make those sales will expire on October 7.  Without Congressional action, that 40 percent of the world’s supply will be taken off the market.  Industries which rely on a steady, affordable supply of helium would face a severe economic shock.

The House of Representatives earlier this year passed legislation that would avert this impending crisis.  The Senate was poised to pass a similar bill, which would have made it possible for the two bills to be reconciled during August, passed in September when Congress returns, and sent to the President’s desk before that October 7 deadline.  Unfortunately, the Senate could not approve its bill before leaving for the August legislative recess -- not because of the substance of the helium provisions, but because of disagreements about how the money raised from the sale of the helium is spent.  Meanwhile, companies that will be affected by a 40 percent reduction in the helium supply are being left in the lurch. 

Congress returns to Washington on September 9, which means they would have less than a month to address this issue.  Leaving it unresolved is not an option.  Domestic manufacturing jobs, medical jobs and procedures, and critical research and academic progress hinge on congressional action. Congress needs to work out the unrelated spending issues and send the legislation for the President’s signature by October 7.  

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