A helium bill passed the Senate on Thursday that partially restores funding to Wyoming for the Abandoned Mine Lands program, Wyoming’s two senators said.
The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 would restore $60 million in AML funding for Wyoming in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, according to a joint statement by Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso.
Last summer, Congress approved cuts to the program and put caps on how much money states can get. Before the cuts, Wyoming was supposed to get $150 million this year, but after the cuts, Wyoming received $13.5 million.
The state has used the money for the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, infrastructure and conservation programs. The state has been criticized for not using more money on mine reclamation. The AML fund gets money from coal taxes. Wyoming is the nation’s top coal producer.
The Senate approved the bill Thursday, 97-2, following action in the House this spring.
AML win for Wyo
Laura Mengelkamp, a spokeswoman for Barrasso, said in an email that since the Senate and House versions of the bill differ, the bill will head back to the House for members to consider the Senate’s amendments. If they accept the amendments, the bill will head to the president. If not, the members of the House and Senate could meet in a committee to negotiate the differences.
The bill requires the Interior Department secretary to sell federal helium at market prices. For years, the secretary has been selling crude helium below market value, the joint statement from Enzi and Barrasso said. That’s cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
“By requiring that the federal government sell helium at market prices, it will encourage the exploration and production of alternative supplies of helium such as those in Wyoming,” Barrasso said in the statement. “This bill also includes major victories that are important to people in Wyoming. It partially restores Wyoming’s AML funding, establishes a competitive royalty rate for our soda ash producers and reduces America’s debt.”
“It’s a very positive step for our state,” Enzi said in the statement. “State AML money was taken unjustly and this partial restoration is a small victory in a long battle that the Wyoming delegation intends to win.”
Gov. Matt Mead was pleased at the widespread support in the Senate for the bill, his spokesman, Renny MacKay said in an email.
“More than $300 million dollars in mine reclamation projects remain here in our state,” MacKay said. “Gov. Mead says we will see how the House proceeds on this issue, and he thanks our delegation for their efforts.”
The bill would also establish a royalty rate for American-produced soda ash, which is mined in southwest Wyoming, at four percent over the next two years. The soda ash royalty rate is currently about 6 percent. In Barrasso and Enzi’s joint statement, they said the lower royalty rate is more competitive than current rates. Soda ash royalties, which are paid to the government, totaled $25 million in 2012. A reduction in the royalty percentage would cut payments to the public, which owns the minerals.
The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation’s helium from a storage site near Amarillo, Texas, is set to shut down Oct. 7 unless lawmakers intervene. The shutdown is a result of a 1996 law requiring the reserve to pay off a $1.3 billion debt by selling its helium.
Congress is moving to avert an impending shutdown of the federal helium reserve, a key supplier of the lighter-than-air gas used in a products ranging from party balloons to MRI machines.
The debt is paid, but billions of cubic feet of helium remain. Closing the reserve would cause a worldwide helium shortage — an outcome lawmakers from both parties hope to avoid.
Uncertainty regarding the future of the helium reserve has already roiled the market for the gas, and has hindered the development of the Denbury Resources Riley Ridge helium and natural gas processing plant near Big Piney.
Preserving access to the federal helium supply “prevents a shock to the health care sector and other critical industries that depend on helium,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said. “Protecting America’s manufacturing base, its research capabilities, its health care system and its national security by temporarily extending the life of the [federal] helium program is just common sense.”
Although the House and Senate versions of the bill differ, President Barack Obama favors the Senate version.
A statement by the White House called helium an essential resource for the aerospace industry and production of computer chips and optical fiber, as well as medical uses including MRI machines and medical lasers. Helium also is used in national defense applications such as rocket engine testing and purging, surveillance devices and scientific balloons.
“The impending abrupt shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many U.S. industries and disrupt national security programs,’” the White House said.