A last-minute legislative flurry keeps the Federal Helium Reserve open. The reserve was slated to close on October 7, based on a 1996 law intended to get the government out of the helium business. The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 became law on October 2–well, five days may not seem like the last minute in this Congress.
The old law assumed that industry would provide sufficient helium for use in MRIs and low-temperature research–and yes, party balloons. However, the 1996 legislation discouraged industry extraction of helium by keeping prices excessively low and adding other restrictions.
The 2013 bill started through Congress in February and both the House and the Senate passed versions of the law before May. Then the bill stalled because the two chambers could not agree on how to use the money coming in from helium sales: the House wanted to use the money to reduce the national debt and the Senate wanted to use the money for other purposes. Finally, on September 19, the Senate initiated an amendment to allocate $100 billion of the proceeds from the reserve to debt reduction. This amendment was quickly approved by both chambers and the bill was sent to the President for his signature.
For background information about the reserve see the excellent AAPG Explorer article by Kathryn Kynett.
The reserve provides one-third of the world’s helium supply, which is extracted from Mid-continent natural gas deposits that are rich in helium–about 0.4 percent helium.
The new legislation will allow the government to sell helium at market prices, which will be higher than in the past. This will surely mean that you party balloons will be more expensive. Medical and research equipment that require helium are increasingly installing equipment to recover and reuse the gas; this may save us from a big jump in medical costs.