Reader's View, legislative action needed: Time is running out to prevent a damaging helium shortage

July 16, 2013 

It's no secret that Congress has a long "to do" list. Some of the issues are big and complex, others are routine.

But if you had to rattle off a list of pressing issues, I doubt many in Washington, D.C., would include the looming helium shortage as one of them. Yet, unless Congress acts in the coming weeks, we will be facing a worldwide helium crisis with the potential to disrupt a wide swath of the economy in Idaho and the U.S.

First, it's important to understand that helium is used for far more than party balloons. In fact, like all semiconductor manufacturers, helium is essential to Micron Technology's manufacturing process. And put bluntly, without helium, we can't make chips.

Micron is based in Boise, and we design and manufacture products worldwide, including in Lehi, Utah, and Manassas, Va. Our products are in nearly every electronic device on the market today. If it has an on/off switch, there is a good chance you're using something that contains one of our products - be it computing, networking and server applications to mobile, embedded, consumer, automotive and industrial designs.

Helium also has essential applications for scientific research and numerous other products and technologies, including medical devices such as MRI machines, chemicals, aerospace and fiber optics. The industries that rely on helium spur innovation, boost economic growth and employ millions of people.

Unfortunately, without prompt congressional action, a critical source of helium will soon be off limits to Micron and all other private users of helium.

The Federal Helium Reserve - established in the 1920s and operated by the federal government ever since - contains about one-third of the world's helium supply and roughly 40 percent of America's supply. Under current law, on Oct. 7, the reserve will no longer be allowed to sell helium to companies and scientists that depend on it. No one would design a system like this, but it's the one we have, and unless Congress acts, the resulting shortage of helium could undermine critical manufacturing, health care and research operations across the country.

Thankfully, there is a legislative effort underway in Congress to avoid this severe shortage. In April, the House of Representatives passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527) nearly unanimously. And earlier this month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the Helium Stewardship Act (S. 783) with strong bipartisan support.

Both bills would secure the supply of helium by allowing the reserve to continue selling helium to private entities. Doing so would prevent the need to obtain helium from overseas sources while also injecting hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenue into federal coffers.

While enacting helium legislation would be a net financial gain for the government, the costs of inaction would be significant. As helium grows scarcer and more expensive, manufacturers likely will be forced to explore costly and difficult options to maintain production without helium. Researchers could be forced to abandon projects, consumers will likely face higher prices for many technology products, and patients may be forced to miss a required diagnosis from an MRI machine.

To avoid these damaging and unnecessary consequences, Congress must swiftly enact legislation that reauthorizes the sale of helium. Luckily, Idaho's congressional delegation understands the need to address this issue. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo have co-sponsored the legislation. And both representatives, Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador, worked to secure House passage of the legislation to avert the shutdown. While we're fortunate to have an enlightened delegation, we need the whole Congress to engage.

The fact is that without congressional action, come Oct. 7, those of us who rely on helium will begin to worry where we're going to get it. And come November, it is possible that some products that use our chips may stop production - just in time for Christmas.

Mark Durcan is CEO of Micron Technology.

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