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Clinton Signs Law Killing Federal Helium Reserve

October 9, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton signed legislation Wednesday pulling the plug on the federal helium reserve, a perennial target of budget-cutters.

``Once, our defense and aviation industries had a strong need for helium and the nation lacked a market to supply it,″ Clinton said in a statement. ``But today, over 90 percent of U.S. helium needs are met by private producers and suppliers.

``A government-operated program is no longer needed.″

The reserve, based outside Amarillo, Texas, nearly managed to squeak through Congress unscathed for another year. But in the waning hours of the session, foes of the program managed to get their bill through.

The legislation’s author, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said: ``I’ve been trying to kill this poster child of government waste since I came to Congress, but the Democrat Congresses wouldn’t even permit a vote on it.

``It took a Republican Congress to get the government out of the helium business.″

Cox’s measure will result in the dismantling of most of the reserve’s operations after 18 months and the eventual sale of its 32 billion cubic feet of helium. Up to 150 of the program’s 180 employees will laid off after a year and a half.

The government-owned helium, which could supply the world for 10 years and the federal government for 80, will be sold over an 18-year period so as not to destabilize the private helium market.

The federal government first began stockpiling helium, a derivative of natural gas, in 1960 amid concerns that supplies might run out.

The Bureau of Mines bought the helium in the 1960s for $252 million. It borrowed the money from the Treasury and has never paid it back. Over the years, interest ballooned the debt to $1.4 billion. Although reserve defenders said the ever-rising debt was a paper liability owed one federal agency by another, it provided a juicy target for critics.

The program also was tarred as a relic of the government’s World War I interest in helium for blimps. Today, the biggest federal demand comes from NASA, which uses about 70 million cubic feet a year for the space shuttle and other purposes.