Helium hoard, blimp war debate could be gasser Critics question 176-year supply

May 21, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON -- In a process that will take months, if not years, Congress began to ponder whether taxpayers should continue subsidizing the Helium Fund, a program created in 1925 to ensure that America would never run short of the gas in the event of global blimp warfare.

By that measure, the program has been a roaring success. The U.S. has accumulated a 176-year supply of the lighter-than-air element, along with $1.4 billion in debt. But the program has become an object of ridicule among fiscal analysts who call it a classic example of how government programs assume eternal life. (The program is not slated for elimination under the Clinton administration budget proposal.)

Following the standard format of congressional hearings, three squadrons of helium bureaucrats, helium industry lobbyists and government helium accountants, along with a Texas congressman whose district is home to the gargantuan underground helium reserve, spent nearly two hours yesterday plumbing its many mysteries before the House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.

All were agreed that the helium program, whose latest incarnation dates back to 1960, has fully completed all its original objectives, except paying for itself. All were also agreed that the helium market has undergone such a complete transformation that private suppliers could meet all federal needs at lower cost.

Rep. Bill Sarpalius, D-Texas, denounced as untrue charges that the helium program is unnecessary and a burden to taxpayers. The program, he stated, "has assured a constant supply of helium to agencies with helium needs."

James Duffus III of the General Accounting Office warned that Congress should move cautiously and consider many issues before getting out of the helium business, although he conceded that it is time for a "reassessment."

Joyce Fleischman, acting inspector general for the Interior Department, warned that the government stockpile is so enormous that if Congress actually terminates the program, a sell-off would have to be extended over 50 years to avoid a devastating price deflation.

Modern applications of helium include chromatography, fiber optics, magnetic resonance imaging, welding and metals refining. It is also used in the space program. Private industry supplies about 90 percent of total demand.

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