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Geology from the Hill: Midyear Report

by Chester F. (Skip) Watts, 2001-02 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 12, no. 7 (July 2002)

Much has happened since my first report to the Society (GSA Today, March 2002, p. 20-21). The fellowship year did have a challenging beginning. My introduction to Capitol Hill was dominated by the terror attacks of September 11 on New York and Washington, which were followed by the anthrax evacuations of the Hart Senate Office Building and then cramped working conditions, as we squeezed into makeshift office space.

Life on the Hill has settled down to a "new normal," and we are finally back home in Hart. Now it's the work itself that is challenging. The issues Congress is grappling with are both crucial and contentious. The public policy process is fascinating, although sometimes convoluted. There clearly is a need and a place for science in the formulation of national public policy, but more often than not, science turns out not to be the final deciding factor.

I am very fortunate to be on the personal staff of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman. This democrat from Connecticut was a 2001 recipient of the Pick and Gavel Award, established by the Association of American State Geologists to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to advancing or facilitating the role of the geosciences in the public policy arena. In this article, I describe some of the geoscience issues facing the nation's 107th Congress.

As one of the first staffers into the Hart building on January 22, my feelings were probably not unlike those of archaeologists unearthing the ruins of Pompeii, also rapidly abandoned, but in 79 A.D. rather than 2001 A.D. A distant day seemed frozen in time as I walked through the building and the office suite. Coffee mugs sat where they were left on desks, messages from October waited to be collected from fax machines, while vital documents and works in progress that were so important months earlier lay neglected. Whenever necessary, the work of the U.S. Senate was reconstructed and completed elsewhere in temporary quarters. Government continued to function despite the efforts of terrorists.

Among the hot geoscience-related policy debates of the 107th Congress are: evolution versus creationism in the schools, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and disposal of high-level nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Other hot science and technology issues include: widespread deployment of broadband Internet services and incentives to help colleges and universities produce greater numbers of physical scientists and mathematicians. Naturally, defense and homeland security matters are ever present and include dealing with the potential of more advanced bio-terrorist attacks, aircraft and airport protection, fighting the war in Central Asia, highway bridge and tunnel security in the United States, and water supply protection. Space and time prevent me from detailing all of these issues, so I will make do with some general remarks.

Members of Congress clearly strive to fulfill the wishes of their constituents. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the two energy-related matters of (1) drilling for oil in Alaska, and (2) disposing of nuclear waste in Nevada. Both of these issues are complex, the debates are heated, and the results will be far-reaching. The debates occur against a backdrop of national and international energy concerns. How can an energy-hungry society meet its energy demands? How much dependence should there be on foreign oil from troubled regions? How do we balance the demand for energy with the desire and need to protect the environment?

The senators from Alaska are passionately in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Geologically speaking, the oil is there, and although the quantities are not clearly known, it is believed to be enough to reduce foreign need for a reasonable time. The technology to remove it with minimal impact exists. Notably, it would bring jobs and revenue to the people of Alaska. On the other hand, many folks have strong visceral feelings that a wildlife refuge should simply not be tampered with, especially when other sources of energy are available, and we have not yet done enough in the way of energy management and conservation. Senator Lieberman is among those and has even vowed to filibuster on the Senate floor if necessary to block the drilling in Alaska.

With regard to nuclear energy, the senators from Nevada are vehemently opposed to the disposal of high-level nuclear waste from all across the United States beneath Yucca Mountain. Their concern is the safety of the citizens of their state. There still remain some unanswered geologic questions. How much heat will the waste generate? How will the heat affect rock and water chemistry? Are the groundwater flow patterns clearly understood? Must we rely only on geologic containment or can we supplement that with engineered containment? And, there are concerns about safely transporting the waste across the country to the facility. These are only some of the many thorny issues.

Clearly, simple solutions to today's energy concerns are not easy to find. Having been involved in the debate over disposal sites in crystalline rock in the east in the 1980s, and having watched the debate for disposal sites in the salt deposits of the Gulf Coast areas with interest, I recognize that we are running out of time. Storage space at some power plants will soon be filled, and the safety and security of so many temporary storage facilities across the country is questionable.

The brief discussions here do not begin to do justice to these difficult matters. By the time this article is published, the congressional votes will have been made and the die will be cast on some of the crucial energy issues facing this country. But this discussion does, at least, provide a sense of the day-to-day complexities of geology from the Hill.

Next time: the daily work of a congressional science fellow.

Submitted for publication by Chester F. Watts, 2001-2002 GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the USGS, Dept. of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 1434-HQ-97-GR-03188. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government.