Oft-Threatened Helium Reserve May Finally Be Punctured
Dallas Morning News
DALLAS - This could be the year that the national helium reserve, the government's stockpile near Amarillo, Texas, sinks like a punctured blimp.
"We're very confident it's going to happen," said Vincent Sollitto, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif. Cox has introduced legislation to "deflate government waste" by dismantling the federal helium operations.
Those who run the reserve have a couple of things to say in response. First, they're sick of the blimp jokes.
"Yes, we are," said Bill Moore, manager of the stockpile. "We don't fill blimps, but that seems to be the rallying cry for critics of the program."
Second, any celebrating by stockpile opponents is premature. "The program has been threatened for 10 years," Moore said. "They haven't been successful yet."
Washington budget watchdogs have long considered the helium reserve a small but important example of government budget inertia. Though frequently derided as obsolete, the stockpile - like dozens of other federal programs criticized as no longer needed - has managed to survive.
To abolish it at last, Cox said, would be "a step steeped in symbolism."
The U.S. Bureau of Mines oversees the Helium Field Operations. That includes a pipeline, a refining plant and a played-out natural-gas field. It supplies such government agencies as NASA, which uses the gas to clean engines and fuel tanks of the space shuttles.
As the largest reserve of helium in the world, with 31 billion cubic feet, the stockpile is a unique national property. Whether it is a unique national property worth maintaining is another question.
Moore, the general manager, believes his operation is productive, efficient and necessary. "I think things are going very well right now," he said.
To Cox, it's an absurd anachronism. "Millions of Americans . . . are amazed that it actually exists, appalled that it has survived for so long and outraged that past Congresses never took action to kill it," he told a congressional hearing in June.
The reserve lost one of its most ardent defenders in Congress last year with the defeat of Rep. Bill Sarpalius, D-Amarillo.
His successor, Republican William "Mac" Thornberry of Clarendon, Texas, speaks for both sides. "The bottom line is, you can believe the government should no longer be in the helium business," he said. "You can also reach the conclusion that helium is of such importance . . . that the government should be involved in it."
The government's role began shortly after World War I, when the Navy built a helium-production facility near Amarillo. Helium, a byproduct of natural-gas refining, was needed to support the military's airship fleet.
The importance of a military lighter-than-air fleet soon faded, but helium's industrial uses grew. In 1960 the government, concerned about possible Cold War shortages, borrowed $252 million from itself and began buying and storing helium. It stored enough to last all federal agencies, at current rates of use, 100 years.
A thriving private helium industry now exists. The gas is used in welding, leak detection, cryogenics and magnetic resonance imaging. Private suppliers account for 90 percent of all U.S. helium consumption.
For the most part the federal government sells only to itself. Thus, the $252 million debt has never been repaid; with interest it now totals $1.4 billion.
Armed with such numbers, those who seek to remove the Bureau of Mines from the helium trade have turned a throwaway line by humorist P.J. O'Rourke into a rallying cry. "The helium program is incredibly stupid," O'Rourke wrote in 1991, "even by government standards."
Lamented Rep. Thornberry, "This is a program that is easy to make fun of."
Opponents have gone beyond making fun. Three bills that would shut down the helium operations are now before Congress, one of them written by the Clinton administration.
The bills propose closing the government's refinery, allowing federal customers to buy from private sources and selling off the reserve. Doing so, Cox said, would save $20 million a year.
Supporters of the federal helium operations say a shutdown will cost nearly 200 jobs in Texas. And they contend any potential savings will be wiped out by higher helium prices for government agencies.
"It's cost the taxpayer money," said Moore, the stockpile manager.
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