Clowns, gasbags and Congress - disaster averted

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:44 PM

Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner Staff

Send in the clowns.

We’ve faced all sorts of cliffs in this great nation of ours. Fiscal cliffs. Political cliffs. Health-care cliffs. Why, as a people we’ve stared down everything from tax cliffs to environmental cliffs.

But this latest cliff is the highest and scariest one yet.

If you blinked at all this past week, you probably missed it — since most news outlets opted to bury the story. On Thursday, Congress avoided yet another of these cliffs by halting the impending shutdown of the world’s only federal strategic helium reserve.

I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’re thinking:

1) “We have a federal strategic helium reserve?”and2) “Somebody was actually worried about it shutting down?”

That’s right, at the risk of starting a panic — and picture me saying this next part with a cartoonishly squeaky, helium-inhaling-induced voice — “Congress just barely averted driving us off the dreaded helium cliff.”

Which doesn’t sound all that scary on the surface, since if we did drive off a helium cliff, I’d imagine us doing it in a big yellow bus suspended by thousands of brightly colored toy balloons (a la Carl’s house in the Disney movie “Up”) and gently floating away into the sky. But in reality, a helium shortage is serious business. Mostly, because of its importance in our everyday lives.

Helium is the second-lightest and second-most abundant element in the universe. But here on Earth, it’s fairly rare. Indeed, helium is a non-renewable resource. It’s so light that, once released into the atmosphere, it escapes into outer space. So every time another one of those festive party balloons pops, we lose just a little more of our finite helium stores here on Earth.

“So what,” you ask? “I’m too old for party balloons anyway,” you say?

Well, smarty pants, there are lots more important uses for helium than keeping clowns off the unemployment line. For starters, helium is used to cool down the superconducting magnets in MRI machines, which make medical imaging possible. Helium is also a big player in the semiconductor industry, so less available helium means higher prices on vital electronics like smartphones and tablets.

Oh, so now I have your attention?

The inert gas is also used in something extremely ghoulish called an “exit bag,” which I’d rather not talk about here. And don’t even get me started on what could happen to the Goodyear blimp.

In other words, helium is not just for birthday parties anymore.

Today, we have the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas. (Rumor has it the facility is shaped like one of those balloon-animal poodles.) That reserve provides 42 percent of the country’s helium and 32 percent of the world’s needs.

An existing federal law would have closed that reserve on Oct. 7 — hence the helium cliff. But fortunately, Congress stepped up to the plate last week and passed a bill to narrowly avert a worldwide helium crisis. It should be pointed out that the bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I take a great deal of comfort and pride in the fact that our elected representatives really do seem to have their priorities straight. Say what you will about the way some gasbag clowns in Congress have taken us to the brink of an impending government shutdown. Still, it’s good to know that when the chips are down and the really important decisions come along — like a law that threatens our very access to helium — these Bozo-wannabes manage to set aside their petty, partisan bickering and do the right thing for the good of the nation.

Ah, yes. Helium and clowns. They just go together.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272,, or follow him on Twitter at @Saalman.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.