Messages muddy the needs

Keeping Science at the Forefront is Difficult

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Lee Allison, director of the Arizona Geological Survey, speaking at the EMD luncheon.
Lee Allison, director of the Arizona Geological Survey, speaking at the EMD luncheon.

“The United States is one of the most poorly mapped countries geologically, among the developed nations … and at the current rate, it will be 75 years or more to complete 1:24,000 scale mapping of most of the country.”

For AAPG member M. Lee Allison, geologist and director of the Arizona Geological Survey, the glass is neither half full, nor half empty.

It’s often the wrong glass entirely.

“As scientists, we spend perhaps 80 percent of our time discovering, accessing and converting data into formats that we can then use to solve problems,” he continues. “Only 20 percent of our time is spent actually doing the analyses and interpretation that are the guts of exploration and discovery.

“Our goal is to flip the 80/20 rule.”

And during the 2012 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Allison talked about that work in a talk to the Energy Minerals Division luncheon – specifically the need for strategic investment in data integration, an area he admits is “not flashy.”

The U.S. Geoscience Information Network (USGIN) is a five-year-old partnership between the 50 state geological surveys through the Association of American State Geologists (AASG) and the U.S. Geological Survey that Allison says will bring vast amounts of disparate data together with a growing array of user applications to visualize, process and interpret data – and do so within three years.

“We are in the middle of a data revolution that is largely unseen, not only by the public but by most scientists as well,” Allison said. “‘Big Data’ and ‘interoperability’ (i.e., data integration) are the coming tsunamis.”

And Allison has been tracking such “storms” for years – the energy ones, the environmental ones, the political ones. It’s been his career, trying to keep science vital, respected and appreciated while navigating the turbulent waters where all dynamics collide.

Guess which are the most severe?

The Good, The Bad and the …

We start in the Midwest.

“When I was on loan to (then-) Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as her energy adviser,” he says, “the most contentious issue we had to deal with was wind energy, and this in a state that called itself the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind energy.’”

The critics of wind energy, he said, were as angry, as passionate and as fervent as any anti-oil or anti-nuclear advocates you’ll find.

“I think,” he adds, “this is true of all the other energy sources as well.”

He ticks them off:

  • Nuclear – “There has been the battle over what to do with waste storage and, recently, the fears raised by the Fukushima plant in Japan.”
  • Coal – Air quality and CO2 issues. Allison believes there is a well-organized and well-funded national “war on coal.”
  • Hydroelectric dams – Impact fish populations and free flowing rivers.
  • Solar plants – Cover too much land and consume too much water.
  • Geothermal – He calls this the “forgotten renewable energy … the (?) to wind and solar” because of induced seismicity.
  • Natural gas – “Even here,” he says, “long touted as a greener alternative to coal-fired power plants, it is becoming integrally associated with hydraulic fracturing, which is the ogre of the moment in the public arena.”

There is the good, the bad and the in-between.

Lots of in-between.

“I’m surprised,” he says, as an example, “that electric powered cars are considered the ultimate green vehicle, when you realize that much of the electricity produced to power them comes from coal- or gas-fired plants.”

Allison, who also is adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, believes that part of the problem with the schema of the national energy debate are the ground rules – and both political parties are to blame.

“Many of the energy debates, and natural resource debates in general, pit economic development versus environmental protection as mutually exclusive outcomes,” he said. “The two sides talk past each other on these points, each looking for a tactical advantage to win their case. Nuances and complexities in the 30-second sound-bite debates are tossed aside, and your position on resources becomes a label on where you stand on the wider political and social issues of the day.”

And he cites an example from his own state.

“In northern Arizona, the battle to keep federal lands open to exploration and mining was lost as soon as the message was framed by putting 'uranium mining' and 'Grand Canyon' in the same sentence,” he said, “even though any potential mines would be many miles from the Canyon and the Colorado River.”

They Said/They Said

As of late, the poster child in the national energy tug of war has been the XL Pipeline, which will, if constructed, transport oil 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to a company hub in Steele City, Neb. From there it would then be directed to other pipelines operated by the company to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Critics say it’s an environmental landmine waiting to be tripped; proponents say it will keep energy prices down and create jobs.

“I was driving home from meetings in Phoenix,” he says, “and Congress drew a line in the sand to force the president to approve the pipeline to promote economic development and energy security. The president rejected the pipeline on the basis that a rushed decision prevented environmental assessment of something that could have a big impact on water and air quality.

“As I listened to both sides make their cases to the news audiences, my first thought was that this was political theater.” (One could imagine, as he listened to the news unfolding on the radio, Allison smashing the dashboard in frustration.) “Both sides played to their core constituencies. Both sides could claim victory for their adherence core principles. It was almost like they jointly choreographed it.”

So what needs to be done?

“The energy message needs to be reframed so it’s not the stereotype of big uncaring companies out to make a fortune, running over citizens trying to protect the environment,” he said.

“In the long term, pitting jobs versus environment is a failed strategy. There are times like now, during a major economic downturn, when the need for jobs carries more weight, and some structural changes may be implemented that have longer term effects. But we are still mostly locked in heavy struggles, project by project.”

An Inconvenient Truth

The struggle includes the notion of science itself.

“Since the end of World War II, the nation has made investments in science and technology, in R&D, a national priority,” he says, much of which has been preferentially directed to health and medicine research – a direction, he reiterated, that was accompanied by tremendous public and political support.

The point, he says, is that for half a century, scientists were trusted and seen as largely above the political fray.

“That is changing. I was on a discussion panel recently, and one of the other panelists wryly lamented that we have one major political party that doesn’t believe in science and the other that will only listen to it when it supports their political objectives.”

Which brings us, as this topic always does, to former Vice President Al Gore, generally, and the movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” specifically.

Allison is diplomatic.

“It was a huge initial success in raising public concerns about climate change issues and getting out a message about the impacts of a warming climate. But it also politicized the climate change debate by having the leader of the Democratic Party appear as the main advocate for taking action.

“You can argue the movie thus failed its long-term goal by mobilizing and energizing critics and legitimizing the topic as a major partisan political issue.”

And even if you would argue that point, Allison seems to be saying that consensus may never be reached.

“Everything society does has environmental impacts, every energy source has its benefits and its costs, and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Hasn’t every U.S. president since Carter in the mid-’70s promised to make the country energy independent?”

For Allison, the goal, then, is for the country to maintain a dynamic balance of resources, so the energy system can adapt nimbly to changing technologies, resource availability, environmental impacts and strategic concerns.

Not that anyone, including himself, knows at the moment where that balance is.

“I wish I had a magic solution to this.”

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