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FORT WORTH, Texas — Francey Freeman has seen the cost of doing business go sky-high.

Prices for buying helium to fill balloons and rental tanks at her Balloons Fantastique in Fort Worth have dramatically increased in the past year, because of a worldwide shortage of the lighter-than-air gas.

“Prices have quadrupled,” said Freeman, who owns Balloons Fantastique. “And the price just went up again a couple of weeks ago.

“The more prices go up, the less people are able to get it. Thank goodness I can still get it,” she said.

“I don’t know what I would do if they told me one day I couldn’t get any more.”

Freeman is among the many florists and balloonists nationwide finding it harder to do business because the supply of helium — a tasteless, odorless, colorless gas that inflates balloons and cools MRI machines — is not just getting more costly, but also harder to find.

Texas is home to the country’s only Federal Helium Reserve, a site outside Amarillo where more than one-third of the world’s helium supply is produced, and the federal government has worked for years to deplete that supply.

Congress more than 15 years ago created a law requiring reserve officials to sell off their helium — therefore privatizing the helium industry — by 2015.

Now a handful of congressional leaders are trying to prevent the reserve from depleting its helium supply and closing its doors.

But at a time when congressional leaders are focused on avoiding the fiscal cliff and trying to prevent Bush-era tax cuts from expiring, preventing the helium shortage from getting worse may not be a top priority.

“We cannot let our national helium supply float away,” said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-New York.

Looming shortage

Although it’s the second-most abundant element in the universe, helium is running out.