Geosciences Action on the Hill

By Lindsay Davis, GSA Science Policy Fellow

The geosciences have been getting attention on the Hill amidst a busy legislative calendar. In addition to feeling the rumbles of a nearby earthquake, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on November 30 to discuss four pieces of geoscience legislation regarding landslides, geologic mapping, geothermal energy development, and volcanoes. The same day, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) held a well-attended briefing on landslide hazards. Another bill, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2017 (S. 1768), cleared the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on December 13; meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee passed the four bills highlighted during the November hearing.

One of the four bills addressed by the subcommittee during the November 30 hearing was the bipartisan National Landslide Preparedness Act (H.R.1675). The bill is sponsored by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) and would “establish a national program to identify and reduce losses from landslide hazards [and] establish a national 3D Elevation Program.” Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar (R-AZ) spoke in support of the bill, highlighting the many different causes of landslides, including storms, earthquakes and fires, and the $1-2 billion in damages that result each year. Dr. David Applegate, Acting USGS Deputy Director, Office of the Director/Natural Hazards, called the legislation “absolutely foundational,” highlighting the Oso landslide as an example of how LiDAR can be used for rapid modeling to guide rescue efforts. During the markup on December 13, a few amendments were adopted by unanimous consent, including one by Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) to include territorial authorities in addition to state and government authorities.

A USGS analysis of LiDAR images denoting previous landslide activity in the area surrounding the Oso landslide, which occurred in 2014 in Washington. Photo credit: USGS, Snohomish County Information Services, the Seattle Times

The bipartisan National Geologic Mapping Act Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4033), sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), would reauthorize the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992. According to Steve Masterman, the State Geologist of Alaska, who testified on behalf of the Association of American State Geologists, the mapping act has successfully contributed $129 million to state geological surveys through a 1:1 competitive matching program. He suggested that states could potentially double their funding contribution for mapping if the federal government increased its budget to match those efforts. Members and witnesses stated many uses for geologic maps, including mineral resource exploration, vital to national defense and consumer products; hazard mitigation, such as for landslides and flooding; infrastructure; training of new scientists; renewable energy development; transportation; and water resources. Applegate added that only 17-20% of the U.S. has been mapped at 1:24,000, the scale that Masterman testified would be necessary for productive resource exploration and land-use planning. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), a cosponsor of the bill, concluded, “There is no doubt that geologic mapping is vital to our nation’s safety and prosperity.”

The draft bill Enhancing Geothermal Production on Federal Lands Act discussed in the November hearing was formally introduced as H.R. 4568 by Rep. Labrador (R-ID), on December 6. The bill aims for more efficient exploration and development of geothermal energy by decreasing regulatory burdens. Scott Nichols, Permitting and Lands Manager of U.S. Geothermal Inc., testified that this bill would allow an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for geothermal exploration, direct the prioritization of geothermal development in promising areas by the Secretary of the Interior, allow non-competitive leasing of federal lands for geothermal development, and permit co-production of geothermal resources and oil/gas. While Allyson Anderson Book, Executive Director of the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), stated that AGI “does not believe a waiver of NEPA review is necessary at this time,” all of the witnesses were supportive of the overall expansion of geothermal as a clean, low-impact energy source.

The National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (H.R. 4475) was introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK) on November 28. The bill would bolster prediction and warning efforts at the Alaska, Cascades, and Hawaiian Volcano Observatories. Witnesses and members stressed that the impact of volcanoes extends beyond area adjacent to volcanoes, since volcanic ash often affects air transit. Applegate testified that there have been 140 eruptions in the U.S. since 1980, and that there are 169 potentially active volcanoes. An amendment by Reps. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa) to conduct a feasibility study on whether additional volcano observatories could be established in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa as part of the National Volcano Early Warning System to monitor the southern Pacific Ocean region was adopted during the markup. If the study determines the observatories are feasible, the bill authorizes cooperative agreements with universities or agencies to establish the observatories.

In addition to the legislation moving in the House that was addressed during the hearing on November 30, similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate. A companion bill to the National Landslide Preparedness Act, S. 698, was introduced in March by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 (S. 1460), sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), includes important provisions related to landslide characterization and hazard reduction. Bipartisan companion bills for the National Geologic Mapping Act Reauthorization Act (S. 1787), and the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S. 566), were introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in November and February, respectively.

The briefing, Gravity Never Sleeps: Landslide Risk across the Country was sponsored by Representatives Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA). Vicki McConnell, Executive Director of GSA, moderated, as speakers emphasized different aspects of landslide hazards in the U.S. and its territories. Jonathan Godt, Landslides Hazards Program Coordinator at the USGS, spoke about landslides that occurred as a result of Hurricane Maria, isolating villages in Puerto Rico. Eric Waage, the Director of Emergency Management for Hennepin County, Minnesota, discussed the threat and impacts from landslides on a seemingly flat state, evidence that no U.S. state or territory is safe from the threat of landslides. As an Emergency Manager, Waage was also able to discuss gaps in preparedness and mitigation such as the inability of insurance companies to offer landslide insurance in the U.S. due to inadequate data for rate calculation. Penny Leuhring, the National Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Program Leader at the USDA Forest Service, talked about links between forest fires and debris flows and how data and modeling can help save lives and property. Jennifer Bauer, the Principal Geologist and Co-Owner of Appalachian Landslide Consultants, PLLC, conveyed the need for increased funding for mapping and the value of partnerships between stakeholders in U.S. counties to guide land-use planning and to mitigate the loss of life and property that can result from landslides.

Gravity Never Sleeps: Landslide Risk across the Country briefing speakers and moderator, from left to right: Jennifer Bauer (Appalachian Landslide consultants, PLLC), Eric Waage (Hennepin County, Minnesota), Vicki McConnell (GSA), Penny Leuhring (USDA Forest Service), Jonathan Godt (USGS). Photo credit: Kasey White.

The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2017 (S. 1768), sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would expand the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program by amending the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. The bipartisan bill would increase data-collection efforts regarding community resilience, require a set of maps be published denoting active faults and folds and areas susceptible to seismically-induced hazards, such as liquefaction and landslides. It would revise or expand the role of relevant agencies, including the USGS. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be required to bring together experts to discuss options for improving seismic safety standards for federal buildings, and the USGS would be required to submit a five-year management plan for the Advanced National Seismic System to Congress.

The four pieces of legislation discussed in the November 30 hearing cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on December 13, the same day as the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2017 cleared the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. With Congress working on another continuing resolution this week to meet their December 22 deadline and avoid a government shutdown, it is unlikely that further discussion concerning this legislation will occur until after the holidays.