Members of Congress in neon yellow and bright white safety hats gathered in an underground mining classroom to discuss how to halt and reverse the fall of mining education programs, bolster the aging mining workforce and maintain global economic competitiveness.
The legislative field hearing focused on the “Mining Schools Enhancement Act,” H.R. 3734, which provides support to mining schools, and touched on two other bills, H.R. 3843, the “Locatable Minerals Claim Location and Maintenance Fees Act” and H.R. 3844 the “Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation Establishment Act.”
“While all three reforms offer a proactive and positive set of solutions, they are now even more critical, in light of the EPA-caused Animas River spill, which occurred last August some 325 miles from here at the Gold King Mine not far from Silverton,” House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) said in a statement.
The Mining Schools Enhancement Act “encourages and provides support to America’s mining schools that produce and help train the experts needed on the technical side to do this work in the future,” Bishop said.
“One of the most onerous threats facing the industry is the steady decline in the number of accredited US mining and engineering programs over the last 30 years,” Hugh Miller, an Associate Professor of Mining Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines said during the hearing.
The hearing took place at the Colorado School of Mines Experimental Mine in Idaho Springs, Colorado on December 14.
The Mining Schools Enhancement Act modifies the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to include support to mining schools, among other purposes, the bill states.
The 1977 bill established the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), which is a bureau under the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting society and the environment from issues arising from surface coal mining operations.
The new bill authorizes the Director of OSMRE to spend at least 70 percent of the funds made available under the bill on enhancing and supporting mining and mineral engineering programs in the U.S by funding activities at mining schools.
Mining schools are defined as “a mining or mineral engineering program or department accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., that is located at an institution of higher education.”
Under the new bill OSMRE is authorized to fund activities related to fuel resource development and production, including studying mining and mineral extraction efficiency; learning mineral economics and reclamation technology; investigating environmentally friendly mineral resource extraction methods; finding was to reduce dependence on foreign energy supplies; and increasing U.S. energy technology exports, among other activities.
Mining education and workforce
U.S. academic programs in mining education are currently at risk, Miller said. “Over half of the existing tenured-track faculty will be eligible for retirement within five years,” he continued.
The number of accredited mining and mineral engineering programs declined from 25 in 1982 to 14 in 2007, Leigh Freeman, a Principal at Leigh Freeman Consultancy and member of a National Academy of Sciences group studying emerging workforce trends for energy jobs, said. The number of faculty dropped from around 120 in 1984 to 70 in 2007, he continued.
Universities face particular challenges in attracting and retaining new faculty, Freeman said. Universities often consider the number of PhD students per department when allocating funding. Since there are very few graduates in mining, the departments are either not likely to draw much funding or become very expensive programs, Freeman said.
Another challenge in education is encouraging people to pursue graduate degrees in mining. Around 15 people graduate per annum with a PhD in mining, Miller said, and most of them are international students.
Without robust academic mining programs, the mining workforce will suffer, the witnesses and representatives said during the hearing. Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Doug Lamborn (R-CO) asked the witnesses if the Gold King mine spill could have been prevented if the Environmental Protection Agency had a qualified mining engineer on site.
The more talent you have the more you can draw from their expertise, Freeman responded. Federal agencies can be crippled by their lower wages – industry often pays its employees substantially more, Freeman said.
Representative Cresent Hardy (R-NV) said that future research needs to focus on reclamation and asked the witnesses why classroom experiences are important training grounds.
Mining education often takes place in mines and laboratories, Miller said. Academia has a unique collaboration with industry and often holds classes at industrial facilities, he continued. The strong collaboration among academia, industry and government is crucial to educating the mining workforce and preparing it for future work, Miller said.
However, without motivated students entering the pipeline, the programs can’t go very far. Since many people don’t know what mining engineers are, very few students want to be mining engineers when they grow up, Nancy Nuttbrock, a mining engineer and associate at Brierley Associates’ Texas office, said. There needs to be a mechanism to engage high school students and especially those who would not otherwise be exposed to mining engineering, she said.
Nuttbrock has been part of projects focused on building tunnels for highways, waterways and other infrastructure. Underground tunnels are often out of sight and out of mind, Nuttbrock said. It’s important to communicate the beauty of what occurs beyond sight, she said. A deeper understanding could inspire future mining engineers.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s under the city, in terms of utilities. It’s just phenomenal,” she said.
By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow