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News from the National Academies
Date: May 23, 2000
Contacts: Bob Ludwig, Media Relations Associate
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

[ EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EDT TUESDAY, MAY 23 ]

Publication Announcement

Selling Federal Helium Reserves Should Not Adversely Affect
Industry, Research Activities

During the 1920s, the United States began to produce helium under a federal monopoly, and later established a facility in Texas to store crude helium. This rare, nonrenewable resource -- extracted exclusively from natural gas -- was essential for certain military applications, but in the decades that followed, the private sector also began to develop a broad array of industrial, research, and medical technologies that use helium, such as fiber-optic cables and magnetic-resonance imaging systems.

After Congress amended the Helium Act in 1960 -- which had allowed only the government to produce helium -- several U.S. companies began to produce and sell the gas. Excess production was sold to the federal government and stored in the Texas facility.

In 1996 Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to stop producing helium and to begin selling most of the government's considerable stockpile by 2005. However, the law also called for the National Research Council to review the plan to sell the reserves and determine if users would be adversely affected. A key concern raised by the scientific community was that selling the federally managed helium reserve -- considering the possibility that a subsequent shortage might occur -- could threaten national security or the interests of the U.S. scientific, technical, and biomedical enterprises.

The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve, a new Research Council report that responds to the congressional mandate, says that privatizing the reserves should not adversely affect the production and use of the gas over the next two decades. However, a number of actions should be taken to ensure that sufficient supplies continue to be available beyond 2020, the report says.

The committee that wrote the report reached these conclusions after examining helium production and conservation efforts, and reviewing the available technologies to reduce or eliminate the need for helium in certain applications. Under the law, the secretary of the interior must use the findings of the report to help guide discussions with government agencies and the U.S. helium industry with respect to the disposition of the nation's helium reserve.

The Helium Privatization Act stipulates that the government should assess in 2015 the results from the sale of its reserves. But the committee pointed out that this review should actually take place earlier. It suggested either every five or 10 years or when there appears to be a dramatic change in supply or demand. In addition, BLM should bolster methods for tracking and forecasting the international helium market, which could impact domestic supplies. Toward this end, the agency should develop and implement accurate classifications for helium uses.

The law also requires the government to maintain a two-year supply of helium for use by federal agencies, based on their current levels of consumption. To assist in stockpiling appropriate amounts, numerical models should be developed to estimate the amount of natural gas that can be extracted from the Bush Dome reservoir in Texas, the committee recommended. These estimates also could be used to predict the helium content of the natural gas.

To ensure access to helium for the future, the government should explore new ways to locate supplies of the gas. Helium can be found in the atmosphere, but is very expensive to extract using current methods. In addition, the government needs improved storage systems, the report says, as well as new technologies that could conserve, recycle, or eventually replace the use of helium.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications
Board on Physics and Astronomy and
Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems
National Materials Advisory Board

Committee on the Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve


Robert Ray Beebe1 (co-chair)
Consultant
Tucson, Ariz.

John David Reppy2 (co-chair)
John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Allen M. Goldman
Head
School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis

Herbert R. Lander
Chemical Engineer
Boeing/Rocketdyne
Canoga Park, Calif.

Molly K. Macauley
Economist
Resources for the Future
Washington, D.C.

Mark A. Miller
Chevron Centennial Teaching Fellow in Petroleum Engineering
Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, and Deputy Director
Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering
University of Texas
Austin

Adam Z. Rose
Head
Department of Energy, Environmental, and Mineral Economics
Pennsylvania State University
State College

Thomas A. Siewert
Deputy Chief
Materials Reliability Division
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Boulder, Colo.

Robert M. Weisskoff
Director of Imaging Development
EPIX Medical Inc.;
Associate Professor of Radiology
Harvard Medical School; and Faculty
Health Science and Technology Program
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

ResEARCH cOUNCIL STAFF

Donald C. Shapero
Study Director and Director, Board on Physics and Astronomy

Kevin D. Aylesworth
Program Officer, Board on Physics and Astronomy

Daniel F. Morgan
Senior Program Officer, National Materials Advisory Board


1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences