Air Products Hopeful New Helium Law Will Work

As federal officials carry out a law approved last year to keep the government in the helium-selling business, companies like Trexlertown-based Air Products and their congressmen are concerned about how long-standing helium contracts could be affected. Those companies are keeping a close eye on final rules from the Bureau of Land Management detailing an upcoming auction of helium in the national reserve and how that helium will be delivered in the coming years. Air Products and three other refining companies hold federal contracts to purchase most of the federal government’s helium, which is a key element of high-tech manufacturing. The Federal Helium Reserve, which was created in 1960, had been set to close in 2015 due to a law passed after the reserve had accumulated significant debt from stockpiling helium. With the debt to be paid off sooner than expected, the reserve would have shut down early, potentially creating a helium shortage. Congress approved a bill last year that allows the remaining helium supplies to be sold off slowly instead of all at once. Supporters said that approach would provide for a more stable supply, as well as return a better profit to federal coffers. But refiners like Air Products want to make sure their existing contracts still will be honored as officials prepare for their first helium auction, which is expected to take place this month. They’re worried by initial rules that prioritize delivering helium bought at the auction before helium that already has been purchased. “We recognize that transitioning to a new helium program will pose challenges. However, we expect the BLM to implement the tenets of the new law while continuing to honor our existing contracts,” Air Products spokesman Art George said in a statement. “Air Products is cautiously hopeful for a balanced and reasonable solution to the key issues in the draft regulation and we look forward to seeing the final version.” During a hearing Tuesday to review how the 2013 law is being implemented, Lehigh Valley Congressman Matt Cartwright said he has questions about the helium delivery scheme and the potential effects on helium refiners. “I do have concerns that imposing an auction before these contracts are fulfilled raises the prospect of litigation over whether or not BLM’s contracts are valid” after the time when the reserve had been set to shut down, said Cartwright, D-17th District, who represents Easton, Nazareth, the Slate Belt and parts of Monroe County. Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent, whose district includes Trexlertown, offered an amendment during last year’s debate to specify that the existing helium contracts must be honored. While the amendment didn’t make it into the final bill, Dent said a variation on his proposal was included. “We all understood that the contracts would be honored,” said Dent, R-15th District. “They’ve bought and paid for the helium.” Linda Lance, deputy director of programs and policy at the Bureau of Land Management, told the House panel Tuesday that carrying out the new law will not interfere with the contracts, and that the soon-to-be-released rules should address concerns. Several companies submitted comments on the draft rules, she said. “We heard those concerns and considered them very seriously,” Lance said.

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