Geology & Geophysics News

Senate Pushes USGS Director for More Action on Minerals, Hazards

Suzette Kimball also tells senators that innovation is the characteristic she hopes to nurture the most as USGS director.


U.S. senators pressed the director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to beef up its minerals and hazards programs at a 7 April oversight hearing about the agency’s priorities, budget, and cutting-edge science.

At the hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called mineral security a USGS core area that lacks attention and resources.

“I remain seriously concerned about our growing foreign mineral dependence,” she said. “Even though minerals are more important to our modern society than ever before, we are paying less and less attention to them.” Murkowski said less than 10% of the USGS budget goes to its minerals program and that it is difficult to find anyone in the federal government “who is responsible for doing anything to meaningfully reduce” the nation’s dependence on imports.

Suzette Kimball, whom the Senate confirmed as USGS director last December, said the agency recently launched its mineral work in “new strategic directions.” The agency is enhancing its ability to conduct mineral life cycle analyses to better understand mineral resources from cradle to grave, which Kimball deemed “essential” as society uses new technologies that require different minerals. Also, last fall the agency brought on an associate director for mineral resources, she noted.

In an interview with Eos after the hearing, Kimball said the agency is “looking to not just rebuild but to enhance both our capability and our capacity” in its minerals work. The agency’s budget request for its Energy and Mineral Resources and Environmental Health area for fiscal year (FY) 2017 is $99.48 million, an increase of 5.3% above the FY 2016 enacted level. Overall, the agency has requested $1.169 billion, a 10% increase above FY 2016.

Senators Call for More Work on Hazards

Senators also urged the agency to increase monitoring of volcanic and seismic activity, landslides, tsunamis, and other hazards. Ranking committee member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called for strengthening those programs, noting that five volcanoes in her state pose high or very high risk, including Mount Rainier, which USGS considers the most threatening volcano in the Cascades.

Kimball testified that USGS has a “priority activity to begin looking at the Cascadia subduction zone. There is more to be done to understand the mechanics.” She added that “perhaps a more important aspect is to make sure individuals understand the potential, understand the true probability of an event and what to do should that kind of event occur.”

Providing Scientists with the Tools They Need

Kimball stressed to Eos that USGS has important mission priorities associated with natural hazards. She said, however, that warning systems for volcanoes and earthquakes and collecting lidar data needed to evaluate landslide potential “are all very expensive undertakings. And our current instrumentation has some age on it. We were given a leg up with the [2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] funds several years ago, but in fact these are all the kinds of activities that really require new types and state-of-the-art” instrumentation.

She added that “for our scientists to do their work,” they also require sensors, access to supercomputing capabilities, and state-of-the-art laboratories, all of which “are not inexpensive.” She said the agency has received inadequate funding for facilities maintenance, leading to damage to some “irreplaceable” data sets.

“If we look out 10 years, we have a growing [funding] backlog that does approach $400 million,” Kimball noted. “We recognize this isn’t on the same scale as, say, the facilities maintenance backlog with the [National] Park Service, but for USGS and the USGS budget it is a very, very significant problem.”

A Focus on Innovation

Kimball said she most hopes to nurture innovation during her tenure as USGS director. “While the [agency] has often been at the forefront of innovative research and science, we must take advantage of technological change and respond to emerging scientific directions to meet our full potential,” she said at the hearing.

The desired innovations, she said, can range from novel technologies, such as using DNA found in the environment, called “eDNA,” to monitor the spread of invasive Asian carp, to researching how enriched algal injections into deep coal beds might jump-start bacterial action to extract a coal bed’s energy without incurring environmental or public safety risks.

Right now is “the time to start thinking about what we need to do as scientists to be ready for the questions that somebody is going to be asking 20 to 30 years from now,” she told Eos, “not 2 weeks from when they need the answer.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Senate pushes USGS director for more action on minerals, hazards, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO050083. Published on 12 April 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0