Updated: Potential New USGS Director Questioned at Senate Nomination Hearing

Update: Washington, D.C. – The Senate confirmed Suzette Kimball to be the Director of the USGS on December 18.

Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said in a statement, “I am pleased the Senate voted to confirm Dr. Suzette Kimball to this important leadership post in the Administration. As a geophysicist and veteran of decades in public service, Dr. Kimball is eminently qualified to lead the USGS.”

Update: Washington, D.C. – The Senate held a business meeting on November 19, 2015 to favorably record the nomination for Suzette Kimball to be Director of the USGS.

Washington, D.C. – The Senate held a hearing to consider the pending nomination of Dr. Suzette Kimball to be Director of the United States Geological Survey, among other nominations, on October 20.

Kimball, who has been serving as the Acting Director of the USGS since 2013 and working at the USGS since 1998, said that “it is an honor to be offered the opportunity to lead this outstanding organization,” in her official statement. During the hearing, Kimball fielded questions from Senators about USGS’s climate, oil, mapping, natural disaster and water research, among other topics.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chaired the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing and Senators Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced Kimball, who currently resides in West Virginia. “She’s been at this for a while – it’s time to move on, if you will,” Manchin said in his introduction, reminding the committee that Kimball attended a hearing for the same nomination in May 2014. “She’ll serve us very ably and capably.”

Preparing for natural disasters

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, asked Kimball about implementing effective earthquake monitoring along the Cascadia Fault in the Pacific Northwest. Kimball said that the USGS is committed to providing information necessary to protect public health and safety, especially through early warning systems.

Kimball thanked Cantwell and Murkowski for introducing legislation to establish an early volcano warning system and said that “[She] look[s] forward, if confirmed, to working closely with [Murkowski and Cantwell] to ensure that we do have those kinds of systems in place.”

The Kanaga Volcano, on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, captured during Western Aleutian field work in September 2015. Credit: Michelle Coombs and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey

The Kanaga Volcano, on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, captured during Western Aleutian field work in September 2015. Credit: Michelle Coombs and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey

Murkowski said she wants Congress to work with USGS to continue high resolution mapping of the U.S., especially with LiDAR and IfSAR, which are remote-sensing technologies. Senator Angus King (D-ME) was optimistic about USGS’s 3D Elevation Program and said, “It’s very useful and I think will become more useful in the future and I hope that’s one you will continue.” Kimball assured King that the program is one of USGS’s priorities. “We see that good elevation data is absolutely a foundation for understanding a lot of the other scientific issues that we face today, whether that’s landslides and debris flows or whether that’s riparian systems and food systems,” Kimball said.

Reaching out to communities

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Kimball to highlight some of the ways Congress can help USGS complete the federal open water data initiative – a modernized system to communicate water data. Kimball spoke about asking Congress to provide authorizations that allow USGS to collect water data and bring government, industry and local efforts together to gather and exchange information, especially through citizen science outreach in communities.

Communities are also crucial in efforts to combat climate change, Kimball said. The USGS will continue to look at climate change effects on events like droughts, reduced snow packs, coastal changes and storm pattern shifts, and determine how communities can build resiliency, Kimball said. The agency “is in a unique position because we can examine the geologic record and look for those changes that are associated with natural processes versus changes that are exacerbated by other activates,” she said in response to Senator Al Franken (D-MN), who asked about climate research at USGS.

Estimating oil and coal reserves

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) asked Kimball if the agency has plans to update its estimates of the recoverable oil reserves in the Williston Basin, which partially sits in western North Dakota. Hoeven said that USGS estimates of oil in the basin were higher in 2011 than they were in 2000, and he wants to drill in the basin to stimulate economic growth in the area. Kimball said that she did not know the assessment timeframe but would work with Hoeven to plan the next update.

Manchin, from West Virginia, asked Kimball about the dramatic rise in shale gas resource estimates. Kimball said that the USGS, state geological surveys and industry are increasing their numbers of surveys examining subsurface conditions and revealing more resources. Furthermore, technology is increasingly effective in extracting resources, Kimball said.

Manchin asked, “Is there anything else out there that we might have under our feet that we don’t know about that could really give us another boost?” Kimball laughingly replied, “Probably, but I couldn’t tell you what it is today.”

Fellow Nominees

The committee also examined other pending nominations at the hearing, which included Cherry Ann Murray to be Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy; Victoria Marie Baecher Wassmer to be Under Secretary of Energy; Mary Kendall to be Inspector General at the Department of the Interior; Kristen Joan Sarri to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Policy, Management and Budget; and John Frances Kotek to be an Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at DOE.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

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