You know about the fiscal cliff, but have you heard of the helium cliff?
On Oct. 7, the government’s Federal Helium Reserve, which contains one-third of the world’s helium supply, will no longer be allowed to sell helium to private industrial and scientific users. Without congressional action, the resulting helium shortage would threaten to disrupt certain manufacturing, research and health care operations across the U.S., all of which depend on helium.
Manufacturers could be forced to consider expensive and complex stopgaps to maintain production without helium, researchers could be forced to scrap valuable research-and-development projects, consumers could face higher prices for a range of technology products and patients could be forced to forgo a needed diagnosis from an MRI machine.
The clock is ticking on a key legislative effort to address the looming shortage of helium, and Congress should act swiftly to approve it.
In the U.S. semiconductor industry, we use helium to manufacture the chips that control all modern electronics. Helium also is essential for lifesaving medical devices such as MRI machines, as well as fiber optics, chemicals, aerospace and scientific research, among many other applications. These industries spur American innovation, drive economic growth and employ millions of people.
Long before the need for helium in these high-tech applications, the U.S. established the Federal Helium Reserve in the 1920s, and the federal government has operated it continuously since. The reserve now contains about 30 percent of global helium supplies and accounts for about 40 percent of the U.S. supply.
Unfortunately, this crucial source of helium is in danger of being off limits for use by the private sector, allowing a vast natural and economic resource to languish and go unused at the reserve.
With a deadline of Oct. 7, Congress has only about 30 legislative days to fix this problem by enacting legislation to reauthorize the sale of helium to companies such as mine and the many others that rely heavily on this supply of helium. Fortunately, leaders from both parties have taken steps to do just that.
On April 26, the House passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (HR 527) — bipartisan legislation that would allow the reserve to continue operations while transitioning to an improved, market-based system of supplying helium — virtually unanimously. And on June 18, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved companion legislation (S 783) on a bipartisan basis to avert the helium shortfall.
Both bills offer a common-sense and bipartisan solution to an avoidable problem. By allowing the reserve to continue operations, Congress can ensure a steady supply of helium, prevent the need to obtain helium from foreign sources and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenue for the federal Treasury.
Despite strong bipartisan support for helium legislation, several hurdles remain, and time is short. With uncertainty about the helium supply growing with each passing day, Congress simply cannot wait until the last minute to get this done, and it must not use helium legislation as a bargaining chip for negotiations on other issues. Instead, the Senate should swiftly approve S 783, and both the House and Senate should immediately convene a conference to reconcile their two bills and send bipartisan legislation to the president for his signature.
This is a rare easy fix for our leaders in Washington, and the stakes are high for the U.S. semiconductor industry and other makers of products that Americans depend on every day.
Our message to Congress is simple: Don’t wait. Act now to reauthorize the sale of helium and help avoid an unnecessary disruption to the U.S. economy.
With prompt action, we can float safely over the helium cliff.
Ajit Manocha is CEO of GLOBALFOUNDRIES and 2013 chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association.