WASHINGTON – Break out the balloons.
Congress moved a step closer Thursday to averting an impending shutdown of the federal helium reserve, a key supplier of the lighter-than-air gas used in products ranging from party balloons to MRI machines.
The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation’s helium from a storage site near Amarillo, Texas, is set to shut down Oct. 7 unless lawmakers intervene. The shutdown is a result of a 1996 law requiring the reserve to pay off a $1.3 billion debt by selling its helium.
The debt is paid, but billions of cubic feet of helium remain. Closing the reserve would cause a worldwide helium shortage, an outcome lawmakers from both parties hope to avoid.
The Senate approved a bill Thursday, 97-2, to continue the helium program, following action in the House this spring.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs depend on a reliable supply of helium.
If the federal government stops selling helium to private entities, “a significant delay might not just slow the production of computer chips, but the computers, life-saving medical devices and weapons systems that they power,” Simpson said.
Micron Technology, a Boise-based semiconductor manufacturer, is among companies that depend on helium, Simpson said. The computer chip industry employs a quarter-million people nationwide, he said.
The Senate bill approved Thursday differs slightly from a bill approved in the House in April.
“The impending abrupt shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many U.S. industries and disrupt national security programs,’ ” the White House said.