STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. OK, you might not know this by going into a party store filled with ready-to-buy balloons, but we currently have a helium shortage. The U.S. Senate will consider legislation to prevent this global shortage from worsening.
Later this year, one huge supplier of helium in the United States - the Federal Helium Program - is set to terminate. The House overwhelmingly passed its own bill last month, to keep the program going. As Ailsa Chang reports, help from Congress will be welcome relief to many industries, not just balloon makers.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It's true. Helium has all kinds of very important uses - MRI machines, semiconductors, aerospace equipment, lasers. But maybe the easiest way to understand the helium shortage is to talk to people like Stacie Lee Banks. She owns a flower shop in Washington, D.C. and is one of the go-to people in the city for filling large orders of party balloons. She's decided she's going to spare a tiny bit of her precious helium today.
(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING)
CHANG: Banks takes a small sip from a balloon she's just filled.
(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON SQUEAKS)
STACIE LEE BANKS: (In high voice) So what do you want me to say?
(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON SQUEAKS)
CHANG: (In high voice) OK, Stacie, tell me about your helium shortage.
CHANG: Banks says she started noticing a problem about half a year ago. Her helium guy, her supplier, used to send her two tanks of helium every time she was running short. Now, he'll only send her one tank at time - if even. When she called him today, he said he was completely out. In a bind like this, Banks would normally pop over to the CVS Pharmacy next door, to fill up balloons.
BANKS: And now they're saying we can't use any of their helium anymore, either. So it's like, I don't know where we're going to get helium.
CHANG: There's a global shortage of refined helium right now - and it could get worse, if the federal government doesn't stay in the business of selling helium. To understand how we got here, we need to go back to almost a century ago - World War I. Germany started building huge, inflatable aircraft and to keep up, the U.S. started stockpiling helium.
Today, that federal helium reserve still exists, just outside Amarillo, Texas. Sam Burton helps manage the supply. He's with the Bureau of Land Management. And Burton says - I'm quoting here - he "lives and breathes helium."
SAM BURTON: That's me - I'm a total helium geek.
CHANG: Burton says there are now 10 billion cubic feet of the gas stored in this federal reservoir. That's enough to fill about 50,000 Goodyear blimps. And it's all kept under a wide-open prairie dotted with coyotes and jackrabbits. The reserve's kind of like a giant layer cake.
BURTON: So if you imagine a layer cake being several thousand feet thick, layers of rock several thousand feet thick, you'd get an idea of how the gas has been stored in one particular layer.
CHANG: Over the decades, private companies learned how to extract helium, too. But they weren't extracting that much of it, partly because the government was selling helium so cheaply. Then in 1996, Congress decided it was time to get the federal government out of the helium business so it wouldn't compete with private industry.
So Congress passed a law that would effectively end the helium program this October. There's a problem with that, though. Because private companies still haven't caught up with demand, a big hole would be left in the market if the federal government suddenly cut off supply as scheduled. Salo Zelermyer is lobbying to keep the government operating the reserve.
SALO ZELERMYER: Certainly, if you take half the domestic supply and a third of the global supply off the market just like that, you're going to get a lot volatility in the system; and you're going to have a lot of end users that aren't going to be able to meet the needs of both taxpayers and regular folks who go in to get MRIs, or to go out and buy high-end electronics.
CHANG: So industries are nervous. Carolyn Durand of Intel Corp., which makes semiconductor chips, says they're already learning to limit their use of the gas. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Intel Corp. official was incorrectly identified. She is Carolyn Duran, not Durand.]
CAROLYN DURAN: So where we've been able to replace helium with another inert gas like argon or nitrogen, we have. Where we've been able to conserve, shut off things, instead of keeping a continuous flow, we will do that.
CHANG: If the legislation passes, it will buy private companies time to find reliable domestic sources of helium.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.