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Political Scene

A Volcanologist Enters Energy Politics
Steve Quane

Boy, how life can change in two weeks! Let’s review: Then: I was living in the mountains of Colorado enjoying the peaceful sunshine and the cool dry air. Now: I live four blocks from the Capitol building amidst the sirens of Washington, D.C., eagerly awaiting the opportunities and activities that this upcoming year as a congressional fellow will provide me. Then: I was a volcanologist afforded the time to ponder how the intricacies of my experimental work related to my field observations for publication in a 15-page paper. Now: I am “that guy” who studied volcanoes and who is expected to produce a one-page memo (maximum) in an hour on a subject with which I am only vaguely familiar.

And believe it or not, life can change quickly on Capitol Hill. Then: The Iraq war was the lead story and the buzz around Capitol Hill. Stem cell research was the hot scientific issue, and the issue of morality versus science was at the forefront of debate. Now: Hurricane Katrina. The devastation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast wiped the legislative schedule clean. Then: The passing of a bill through the House and Senate could be measured in geologic time. Now: The 109th session of the U.S. Congress started early and some $63 billion in emergency appropriations were signed into law in approximately three hours.

The tragedies in the Gulf Coast exposed to the world an issue that has been of concern for years — the lack of a comprehensive plan to reduce U.S. dependence on nonrenewable resources, including oil.

That’s right — an earth science issue is currently dominating the legislative agenda and is expected to be at the forefront for the remainder of this legislative year! So I ask myself, “What can I do? How can I, as a scientist, make the biggest impact on the legislative process?”

For starters, curiosity can go a long way. My love for geology started my freshman year at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was hard not to like the discipline after taking afternoon field trips through some 2 billion years of stratigraphy. After years of classes and field excursions, I had no doubt that I would study volcanology in graduate school. So I was off to the University of Hawaii to study Kilauea volcano. I was not disappointed, becoming addicted the first time I saw an active lava flow. After two years of watching monotonous, yet fascinating, outpourings of black rock, I decided to move on to, as one of my professors said, “white rocks that go bang.” I went north to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where I fabricated pyroclastic rocks in the laboratory and deformed them at varying pressures and temperatures for my Ph.D. work.

So how does a volcanologist become interested in science and public policy?

During my graduate studies, I was extremely fortunate to visit national labs or attend universities in Germany, France, Canada and the United States. At all of the institutions, I met great people and had thought-provoking discussions about a range of matters, including the role of the government in science and science in the government.

The federal government is often thought of as this massive engine of bureaucracy, but as I have already learned in my two-week Capitol Hill orientation for my congressional fellowship, it is actually relatively small. The lawmakers rely on the help of various outside groups and also heavily on their constituents.

The aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita presents the United States with the highest oil and natural gas prices in history and a rebuilding project unprecedented in scope and geotechnical complexity, and I am one of the fellows who gets to represent the scientific community. That, to me at least, is a daunting task. But I am not alone. All earth scientists and people who are interested in science-based policy have a chance to make a real difference.

The United States is at a crossroads concerning energy resources. The tragedies in the Gulf Coast exposed to the world an issue that has been of concern for years — the lack of a comprehensive plan to reduce U.S. dependence on nonrenewable resources, including oil. A major shift in priorities and lifestyle is needed for the United States to continue to prosper at the levels to which it has become accustomed.

Due to cheap oil and gasoline prices, the U.S. economy and way of life have grown with no concept of conservation. For example, people commute to work daily for tens to hundreds of miles in single-occupancy vehicles. We go to the grocery store and find grapes shipped from Chile and apples from New Zealand. Starting now, we are going to pay the price for creating a society that has ignored the future of our resources. For us to have any chance to continue at our current level of comfort, revolutionary new technologies are needed to improve fuel economy, harness natural and renewable forms of power, and even to invent new forms of energy production. Therefore science has to play a key role in public policy.

After two weeks of interviews discussing upcoming legislative issues, I have decided to take a position in the office of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). In this position, I will have the opportunity to work on issues related to our dependence on oil, and to creating new and alternative forms of energy, while preserving the natural beauty of our landscape.

I am looking forward to working with the earth science community in representing some of the nation’s most pressing issues. And I will keep you abreast of my progress as I wade into the world of public policy.


Quane is the William L. Fisher 2005-2006 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies, and will work in the office of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this year. Look for more columns by him over the next year.

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