By Morgan Disbrow-Monz, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Dr. David Applegate

On 14 June 2022, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources advanced by voice vote Dr. David Applegate’s nomination to be the director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to the Senate floor. The vote comes just over a month after the committee held a hearing to consider Applegate’s pending nomination. Applegate now await a vote by the full Senate for confirmation.

Dr. Applegate, a Geological Society of America (GSA) Fellow, has worked at the agency for more than 18 years and is currently performing the duties of USGS Director. He started in 2004, serving as the first Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards, then in 2011 became Associate Director for Natural Hazards. After earning his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Applegate served as a Congressional Science Fellow and professional staff member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He then directed geoscience policy for the American Geosciences Institute and was the editor of Geotimes. In 2005, Applegate received GSA’s Public Service Award.

The nomination hearing highlighted congressional priorities regarding critical minerals, supply chain shortages, and national and economic security concerns. Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) voiced his concern about the implications of China’s stronghold on critical mineral supplies. Ranking Member Barrasso (R-WY) honed in on how the war in Ukraine has exacerbated shortages in helium, an element that the USGS removed from its most recent critical minerals list, and Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) asked about the reserves of critical minerals in the deep sea.

Applegate stressed the essential and foundational role that the USGS plays in the endeavor to understand critical minerals and energy resources. He highlighted the USGS Earth Mapping Research Initiative (EarthMRI), which is collecting data to better evaluate U.S. mineral resources, and he applauded the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as an “incredible shot in the arm” for continuing to advance this program and bolster critical minerals supply chains. He also discussed the importance of research to better understand the deep sea as a frontier area in terms of these resources, but acknowledged that more work needs to be done to better assess the scale of the resources and the associated impacts of mining them.

Applegate spoke about the purpose of the USGS’s critical minerals list, noting that the list is based on the definition of a critical mineral defined by the Energy Act of 2020 and does not encompass all essential materials. He emphasized that the critical minerals list only reflects a snapshot in time. In reality, the list is dynamic, and the USGS will continue to consider and refine factors going into assessing criticality and revise the list based on the most up to date data and research. He stressed the importance of partnerships, with an emphasis on engaging the public and continuing to invest in workforce development that both recruits and retains the next generation of talent. Applegate stated that he is devoted to upholding the agency’s commitment to scientific integrity and to bringing strong science into the center of policy making. As stated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, upon Dr. Applegate’s nomination, “For nearly two decades, David has helped advance the federal government’s scientific understanding of climate change and America’s geological features. As the confirmed Director, I am confident he will continue to empower the agency’s scientific and technical experts to use the best available science to help address the most pressing challenges of our time.”