An Eroding Competitiveness …

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

In 2005 the National Academies released a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”

The report’s objective, with the bipartisan encouragement of a concerned Congress, was to assess the nation’s scientific and technological enterprise and recommend specific policy steps to ensure that it would continue delivering the advances necessary to ensure U.S. competitiveness and prosperity.

To conduct the study the National Academies formed the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, chaired by retired Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Norman Augustine.

That committee of 20 academic and industry leaders included Defense Secretary Robert Gates, then-president of Texas A&M University; Energy Secretary Steven Chu, then-director of the E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Lee R. Raymond, then-chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation.

Congress responded in 2007 with the America COMPETES legislation to boost national science and technology R&D and education investments through fiscal year 2010.

The bill authorized a “hydrocarbon systems science talent expansion program for institutions of higher education.” Hydrocarbon systems science was defined as “a science involving natural gas or other petroleum exploration, development, or production.” And the goal of the program was to provide money to academic departments and students engaged in these activities.

The authorized funding amounts were not lavish. Even so, Congress never appropriated money to launch the program.

(See the January 2010 edition of this column for a review of the relationship between authorization and appropriation bills.)

Just before this past Christmas, the 111th Congress reauthorized America COMPETES, sending it to President Obama for signature.

Of particular interest to many science societies is a requirement in the reauthorized bill for the National Science and Technology Council to form a working group of federal science agencies to develop policies on the “dissemination and long-term stewardship” of data and information, including peer-reviewed articles, funded by federal money.

There is a strong desire in Washington, D.C., for federally funded research results to be broadly available to the general public. Such a move, however, could dramatically alter the business models used by both for-profit and not-for-profit science publishers – and AAPG is monitoring this process as it unfolds.

The reauthorization continues the hydrocarbon systems science program, expanding the focus areas to include “hydrocarbon spill response and remediation.” It authorizes more than $30 million to be spent over three years. But it is uncertain whether appropriations will follow.

Also in 2010, members of the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Committee updated their report, observing that U.S. competitiveness had further eroded in the five years since its release. The committee’s bleak conclusion was that “[T]he Gathering Storm increasingly appears to be a Category 5.”

“Crisis really is the best word for this situation,” AAPG member Bo Sears said about the critical helium-3 shortage in the United States in an October 2010 EXPLORER article.

The bulk of helium-3 is used for security technology, according to the article, but also has research and medical applications and is a vital component of some well logging tools used in oil and natural gas production. As such, the shortage could impact the U.S. oil and natural gas industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) manages the nation’s helium-3 stockpile, and DOE’s office of oil and natural gas is responsible for allocating the 1,000 liters of helium-3 available for oil and natural gas uses in the current federal fiscal year (FY2011) – and is trying to better understand needs in FY2012.

To do so it is reaching out to the oil and natural gas community, inviting public comments and input.

In a December 7 notice published in the Federal Register, DOE asked for “information to improve its understanding of the need for helium-3 and the diversity of the user community so that it can tailor its allocation process to best support the efficient domestic production of oil and natural gas.”

Specifically, the DOE is looking for information on:

  • Uses of helium-3 in the well logging industry.
  • Volumes of helium-3 needed over the next two years.
  • The ability to recycle and reclaim helium-3 from neutron detectors no longer in use.
  • What quantity of a company’s helium-3 allocation would be used outside the United States.

Submit comments by e-mail to Edith Allison (coincidentally, an AAPG member) with “Helium-3 Request for Comments” in the subject line.

The official deadline to submit public comments was February 1, but DOE has indicated willingness to accept comments through February 15. I urge you to respond to this request to help DOE better understand the industry’s helium-3 needs.

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