David Applegate, a longtime U.S. Geological Survey official who has been nominated to lead the agency, discussed critical mineral supply chains and carbon sequestration with senators at his nomination hearing last month.
President Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Geological Survey, David Applegate, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month for his nomination hearing, fielding questions mainly related to U.S. energy security and the agency’s role in assessing critical mineral supplies.
Overseen by the Department of the Interior, USGS has played a major role in mapping U.S. mineral resources since its establishment in 1879. With a current budget of about $1.4 billion, it is one of the smaller federal science agencies but is receiving a one-time boost of over $500 million through last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, mostly to expand its critical minerals work. In addition, the Biden administration is seeking to increase the agency’s annual budget by nearly a quarter in fiscal year 2023, in part to expand critical minerals assessments and climate science programs.
A geologist and career USGS official, Applegate for a decade led the agency’s efforts to monitor threats from natural hazards such as volcanos and earthquakes. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, he has been performing the duties of agency director. Committee members from both parties spoke highly of his qualifications at the hearing, putting him on track for confirmation.
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Applegate has long record in policy
Applegate earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1989 and a doctorate from MIT in 1994, both in geology. He soon turned his career toward policy by working for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, first as an American Geophysical Union Congressional Science Fellow and then as an ordinary staff member.
“After five years of field work in the Death Valley region of California, I was curious how the knowledge gained studying the inner workings of the planet could aid policymakers in their decision-making,” he told the committee at his nomination hearing.
After his time as a congressional staff member, Applegate worked as director of government affairs for the American Geosciences Institute, a federation of geoscience societies. He also edited the institute's magazine and wrote a regular policy column for it.
Applegate joined USGS in 2004 as its first senior science adviser for earthquake and geological hazards and was appointed head of the Natural Hazards mission area in 2011. He became interim USGS director in January 2021, but the role remained without a nominee for over a year before Biden chose him for it this past March.
Critical minerals top of mind for senators
Reflecting on the role of USGS at the hearing, Applegate remarked, “It has a mandate that is neither regulatory nor policymaking but is instead tasked with this critical mission to deliver science that can be used by decision-makers to underpin policy and management decisions with credibility. On matters of science, it is an honest broker and straight shooter, delivering data and analysis about a wide range of hazards and resources.” He added that upholding the agency’s commitment to scientific integrity would be among his top priorities if confirmed.
One of Applegate’s earliest moves as interim director was to reverse a Trump administration policy that shortened the time horizon of climate change impacts that the agency’s analyses could consider, citing an internal finding that the policy did not meet requirements for scientific peer review. USGS also recently faced an incident in which a lab worker falsified test results, and in 2016 the agency closed a geochemistry lab after discovering it had manipulated test data over a six-year period.
Committee members did not raise the incidents, focusing instead on issues involving critical mineral supplies and energy resources.
Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) expressed concern about U.S. reliance on foreign supply chains for critical minerals, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Putin has weaponized energy, and I’m concerned that Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, will do the same with critical minerals since they process about 80%,” he said.
Addressing those concerns, Applegate highlighted the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI), a USGS project to survey regions of the U.S. thought to harbor large concentrations of critical minerals that will receive $320 million over five years through the infrastructure law. He called the funding an “incredible shot in the arm” for the agency’s efforts in the area.
In addition, Applegate said USGS is working to understand global mineral resources and supply chains through its National Mineral Information Center. He also pointed to joint efforts with state geologic surveys and international partners, such as the U.S.-Canada Critical Minerals Working Group.
Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) asked about how USGS updates the list of minerals it deems critical to the U.S. economy and national security, which Congress requires it to maintain. Barrasso has criticized the agency’s most recent version of the list, published in February, pointing to the removal of uranium and helium and noting Russia’s role in supplying them. He also asked Applegate if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would prompt a revision. Barrasso’s state is a supplier of both uranium and helium.
In response, Applegate said the list is a “snapshot in time” that is continuously reviewed by the agency. He stressed the list does not comprise all “essential minerals” and instead reflects specific criteria such as vulnerability to supply chain disruptions.
Later in the hearing, Barrasso addressed the removal of helium specifically, pointing out that the war in Ukraine has exacerbated existing shortages. Applegate replied that while there is “no question about it being an essential resource,” the U.S. is a net exporter of helium and has “huge” reserves, which he said were factors that influenced the decision.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who once worked as a geologist, inquired about the role of USGS in advancing carbon sequestration, another priority area for the committee and the Biden administration. He asked whether USGS has plans to update its 2013 assessment of the nation’s capacity for storing carbon in rock formations, to which Applegate replied the administration has requested funds to do so.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) asked about the prospect of using captured carbon dioxide to enhance the recovery of oil from existing reservoirs. Applegate noted USGS recently completed a study on the subject and highlighted it as an area where the agency was able to repurpose its capabilities in energy resource characterization.
“It's using the same kinds of expertise that we've developed to understand where the oil and gas resources are for the nation [to understand] where the sequestration potential is as well,” he said.
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