More than 22 million vertical feet of geologic cores and cuttings fill the Kentucky Geological Survey’s Well Sample and Core Library in Lexington. The materials are from at least 22,000 sites within Kentucky—including collections from oil and gas exploration operations, coal and other mining companies, highway construction projects, environmental studies, and federal facilities such as Fort Knox—and they are straining the 15-year-old facility to the point where there is no room to keep everything, according to geologist Patrick Gooding, the library manager.
Gooding told Eos that during a thinning of the collection a few years ago, he had to excuse himself from the project because he found it so difficult to throw out potentially valuable material. “Oh, man, if you know what I did to get that collection, and you all are wanting to dump it out,” he recalls thinking. “It’s like my babies, you know. You want to throw away my babies?”
Gooding was among the witnesses at a 17 September congressional hearing to reauthorize through 2019 the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program (NGGDPP) Act of 2005. At the hearing, Republican and Democratic members of Congress expressed support for reauthorization.
The program has helped to archive geological, geophysical, and engineering data and samples; provide a national catalog of archived materials; and assist state geological surveys and some federal programs for archived materials. Authorization for the program, which is administered by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), expired 4 years ago.
Although the annual authorization for the program has been $30 million, Congress has appropriated a total of $8 million since 2007. That funding has allowed USGS to implement the National Digital Catalog. In addition, with that funding, USGS has provided states with about $4.6 million—a figure matched by states—to rescue and preserve geoscience collections.
“Each year, millions of feet of cores and well cuttings—along with the water data, geologic records, maps, seismic data, and mineral and fossil collections—are discarded and destroyed all over the United States. The loss of this resource, which costs millions of dollars to obtain, is a tragedy for our nation,” Gooding testified at a hearing held by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
He argued that good and efficient management of this material is important for society, industry, and research. Geological preservation, he said, can lead to new discoveries, the redevelopment of mature oil and gas fields and mineral deposits, and better management of natural resources, as well as help improve understanding of environmental problems and natural hazards.
Data at Risk of Being Lost
At the hearing, Jonathan Arthur, president of the Association of American State Geologists and director of the Florida Geological Survey, said the group endorses the program “as it is designed to readily address a vast and enduring concern for the nation. Not only are geological and geophysical data at risk, but scientific clues revealing undiscovered water, mineral, and energy resources may be lost, and, more importantly, data that can save lives may be lost.”
Arthur said that “despite the continuous evolution of geological, geophysical, engineering concepts, and analytical techniques, there is a constant need to revisit, reexamine, and reanalyze rock samples over time. These second looks at archived and heritage data can yield energy and mineral discoveries worth billions of dollars and generate tens of thousands of jobs.” He said that although Congress’s “modest” appropriation levels have not been sufficient for intended capital improvements to facilities to protect materials, the program has helped with some important data preservation work.
He pointed to such examples as the state of Montana preserving mine and mineral data and Oklahoma scanning in old aerial photographs and mud logs.
Arthur told Eos that the program is important because “collections all over the country are running out of space in terms of archiving and storage, in terms of the physical collections.” He continued, “There are still just untold millions, probably, of logs and fossils and thin sections and field notebooks that have information that need to be captured digitally. They need to be georeferenced, they need to undergo quality control, they need to be discoverable, and they need to be usable. That’s a tremendous amount of work. And the degree to which these types of information can have an impact is tremendous.”
He added, “The cheapest data point is the data point that you rescue, and it is worth the investment.”
Theodore Pagano, general manager of the Michigan Potash Company, LLC, provided another example of the value of preserved geological data. Pagano said a reexamination of old cores helped with the rediscovery of a Hershey, Mich., potash deposit that has enough proven material to double U.S. output for more than 150 years.
Bipartisan Support for Reauthorization
At the hearing, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chair of the House’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, expressed support for the program. If data are saved, archived, and stored, at a later point, the data could help to identify and solve environmental problems, locate public safety hazards, or direct exploration, Lamborn mentioned. He said that in 2008, a reinspection of rock chips from a dry oil test well in Texas led to the discovery of the Eagle Ford Shale deposit in that state, which has had a $25 billion economic impact.
Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said the bill is long overdue. “This country’s collection of geological and geophysical data is invaluable,” he said. “It represents millions upon millions of wells, cores, fossils, maps, and other things that have been collected over more than a century. And they’re not static museum pieces. These collections are used, should be used, will be used, day by day,” he said. “It is hard to imagine what future researchers would say if we allowed this [material] to disintegrate or disappear.”
Kevin Gallagher, USGS associate director of core science systems, told Eos that reauthorization of what he termed “a very effective program” is an important step but that more funding is needed, particularly for improving geologic warehouse facilities. “The need is most urgent in just increasing the scale of the facilities,” Gallagher said, noting that most warehouses that house geologic collections are full. “We’ve done a great job here in the first 8 years of the program in rescuing some collections, inventorying collections, cataloging. The time now would be to expand the facilities, to preserve more, and to continue our work with the National Digital Catalog to make [the collections] accessible.”
“This country has collected, over its history, really important geologic material that has value because the methodologies and the techniques for using these geologic collections is continually evolving and changing. So, for example, energy exploration that wasn’t possible 10 years ago is now possible today, [and it] requires readdressing existing collections, reinventorying, relooking at it in new ways that underpin the economy,” he added. “We have examples where this [program] has been used to mitigate natural hazards, to open up new areas of exploration, to exploit minerals that in some cases we didn’t know existed.”
For more information, see http://naturalresources.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=392638 and http://datapreservation.usgs.gov/.
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer