Politics

Sale of federal helium facility helps secure funding for Alaska schools and cleanup of legacy wells

A move to avert a national helium shortage will end up helping to fund some Southeast Alaska schools and clean up old federal oil-and-gas wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. On Friday, Congress passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. The bill extends authorization for a massive helium storage facility in Texas, and firms up the details for selling it to private industry. If Congress had failed to act, the US would have faced a severe shortage of the lighter-than-air gas by Oct. 17.

The Cliffside Storage Facility -- 12 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas -- stores up to 1 billion cubic meters of helium that has been separated from natural gas fields and pumped into the facility.

The helium storage plant was first set up by the US government in 1925 as a place to store the gas -- largely for use in airships. Since the 1950's, it has been the main supplier of helium for a range of industrial uses -- including for NASA, manufacturers of medical equipment, and other high-tech industries that rely on the gas as a coolant.

The bill sets up terms for selling off the helium stored in Texas -- turning over stewardship of the nation's supply of the valuable gas to private industry.

"The government should get out of the helium business," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Through her work on the Senate Energy Committee, Murkowski was able to attach a rider to the bill that will use some of the estimated $500 million in proceeds from the helium sell-off to pay for things in Alaska with little connection to helium.

Some $16 million will be sent to the Secure Rural School program for Alaska, which funds school districts in federal reserves and on other Washington D.C.-controlled-lands. In Alaska, school districts inside the Tongass National Forest, do not have the same ability as other districts to raise money for their schools through property taxes, because there is little, if any, privately controlled property within their districts. The money was supposed to run out this year. The $16 million, secured by the congressional vote, will keep it going another year. Murkowski said she's working to secure future funding.

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"I have been told by the school district in Wrangell that the SRS funding represents a third of its total annual budget," the senator said.

But some of the money earned over the next 10 years by the sale of the Cliffside, Texas, facility will be spent cleaning up a mess created, in large part, by the federal government itself in Alaska. Some $50 million will be spent to help clean up the hundreds of so-called legacy wells in northern Alaska. Many of the federally funded and constructed exploration wells inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, were simply abandoned, and are leaking crude into the nearby tundra.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.

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