The Helium Cliff: Will Government Gridlock Send Prices Skyward?

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We've had college loan cliffs and tax cliffs, fiscal cliffs and global growth cliffs. And this October, unless Congress moves quickly, it looks like we're going to float over the latest precipice: the helium cliff.

While the idea of helium going bust may sound a little silly, it happens, it'll be no laughing matter: In addition to spelling an end to party fun for millions of little kids, a cut in helium production would be economically devastating. The noble gas, which has the lowest melting and boiling point of any element, is routinely used in hospitals, rockets, manufacturing centers, research labs, and hundreds of other businesses. There's already a shortage, which has pushed up prices. If we go over the helium cliff, they would likely soar through the roof.

The big problem lies in where America's helium comes from. Currently, 42 percent of the crude helium consumed by the U.S. is produced by the Amarillo Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management. Amarillo, in turn, gets its helium from the Federal Helium Reserve. (Yes, that's a real thing. No, it's not staffed by people clown suits.) A collection of huge natural gas fields in Texas, Kansas and Colorado, the reserve pumps out 5.8 million cubic feet of helium per day, 2.1 billion cubic feet per year.

According to the BLM, helium prices are high due to several factors, including routine maintenance at several production facilities, as well as the delayed opening of a new plant in Montana.
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Soon, however, things may get worse: As The Washington Post's Lydia DePillis reported on Friday, a 1996 law called for the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve after the reserve paid off the costs of its creation. That milestone will pass this October.

It's not like Congress isn't aware of the pending helium disaster: For the last few months, the Senate and House of Representatives have both had bills on the table that would keep the reserve running. Unfortunately, though, neither house has bothered to schedule a vote, and the clock is running out.

Admittedly, Congress will probably deal with the helium cliff before October. They'll probably pass legislation to keep the reserve open, prices (relatively) low, and helium flowing to the businesses that need it. In a few months, if all goes well, this cliff will prove to be a nothingburger of a story, a little scare that went nowhere.

The trouble is, if last few years of obstructionism in Washington are any indication, companies that rely on helium can't count on Congress to get its act in order by the October deadline. Until legislation is passed to keep the reserve open, businesses have to work on the assumption that helium prices are going to skyrocket -- and that they'll need to find alternate sources for the vital gas. In other words, this is yet another example of an issue where pointlessly partisan legislative gridlock may well create a big problem by refusing to deal with a little one.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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