Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New York State's Current Quest
For a Frack-Agnostic State Geologist

Professor James Hall was first to actually name the Marcellus Shale, a key investigator in NY's first Geological Survey, its first State Paleontologist, and late in his career returned to serve as State Geologist — a job title that NYS Education Department happens to currently seek to refill.
Embedded below is a screen shot of the official job announcement showing New York State's Education Department is currently reviewing candidates to fill the now year-old vacancy of State Geologist, a very specialized official appointment initiated as far back as 1836, when Governor William L. Marcy ordered the state's first geological survey.

(A year later, a contemporary colleague of Prof. James Hall (pictured above), geological surveyor Ebenezer Emmons, led the first note-taking hike up the Adirondack Mountains' highest peak, naming it for this governor, as if in gratitude for the work.)

If you're potentially qualified, but late to this job opening, I am sorry about that; applications closed Dec. 27, 2013 for the job, which pays $82K per year.

But there does lurk a problem — the fracking problem.

State Ed's problem with professional geologists and fracking is that they go together all too well.

Virtually all educated, experienced geologists are going to hold to the sober, professional view that the technological feat of producing oil and gas from tight shales has now been established as a do-able proposition.  (Some, it's true, may sagely counsel that whether or not, or how, you want to let the private sector do this sort of thing is largely a societal or political or legal question — not a scientific or technological question.)

Yes, there are impacts, all geologists understand, but nothing that well-planned regulation of the enterprise can't handle.  Most geologists also understand that fossil fuels and other mineral resources remain necessary for the operation of current human society — even if the working classes must put in overtime to prop up the sumptuous, hypocritical lifestyles of all anti-frackers in New York for the next 50 years.  In fact, these kinds of broad-based societal benefits might be a lot of the reason why they went to school for geology in the first place.

Inside the touchy bureaucratic confines of New York State government, however, anything like "do-able" is a dangerous sentiment to hold to — even more dangerous to speak out in public.  In fact, it's gotten to the point in New York where even a mild-mannered, studious, even-handed, and fairly dull exposition on the process of fracking — including its pros and cons — would bring a state-paid geologist nothing but public vilification from over-heated fractivists, and muzzlement from know-nothing state administrators (who, frankly, have gone over to the dark side of George Orwell's Thought Police).

We have already seen a number of recent, embarrassing examples of this — all the more glaring, to me, for the stunning failure of educated New Yorkers to raise any righteous stink of protest about it, on the very simple grounds of tolerance or freedom of thought.

This state actually already had a fairly quiet, uncontroversial State Geologist — Dr. Langhorne "Taury" Smith — whose appointment extended back in time prior to 2008, the year when fracking first started getting widespread public discussion in the Northeast U.S.  Then, as now, Smith's State Geologist job represents a peculiar hybrid of archivist, researcher, and deep subject matter expertise.  The work involves maintaining the state's informational archive (much of it based on well logs handed off by statute from the oil and gas industry), fulfilling a legislative mandate to weigh in on proposals for storage and withdrawal of fossil fuels in deep spent reservoirs (such as the now kindergarten-aged Watkins Glen propane storage plan), and engaging in public-private research on certain forward-looking topics of particular geologic relevance to New York (the resource potential for carbon capture, geothermal, black shales, sandstone, limestone, etc.).

After several years of near-daily media coverage on the fracking question (during which time not a single reporter appears to have bothered to phone Smith for a quote), New York's State Geologist was finally asked about it by state bureaucracy specialist James M. Odato of the Albany Times Union, for a column running March 11, 2011.

"The worst spin on the worst incidents are treated as if it's going to be the norm here," Smith was quoted.  "This could really help us fight climate change; this is a huge gift, this shale…  I'm for a strong regulation by DEC. They have no vested interest. The environmental groups have a vested interest. The companies have a huge profit at stake, so I wouldn't trust them either… If there's one group you can trust it's the DEC."
It may not occur to you that this sort of vanilla, bottom-line, balanced-regulation kind of thing would have led to Smith being essentially forced out of his State Geologist job at the State Museum.  But this is a new New York.  And it eventually did.  With relief from the daily grief, Smith quit his job in January 2013 and instead set up a private consultancy in the Albany area called Smith Stratigraphic LLC.

Here's what happened between the original 2011 ruckus, and his 2013 departure:  Smith found himself commuting daily to a preposterous clampdown by State Ed, the department within which his State Museum branch was long ago shelved.  Smith was forbidden from answering media inquiries without running everything past Public Relations first.  (Not that there were all that many calls from in-state media, which does very little independent research on anything that hasn't already been run through a spin mill beforehand by interested factions.)  And then State Ed bosses — urged on by conspiratorially minded Googlers within the fractivist community — launched an ethics inquiry, apparently fishing for any improper industry income in either Smith's background, department, or private life.  If there were any results from this, I never heard.

The torrent of questions were basically something along the lines of… Are you now, or have you ever been, directly or indirectly on the payroll of the oil and gas industry?  This despite the fact that there has been, for many years, and still, at least some private sector money getting institutionally spent on various geologically-related projects that are thought to be in the public interest — by both the State Museum's Hydrocarbon Reservoir Characterization Group (RCG), and by similar specialists working directly or on contract with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

Between 2011 and 2013, equally crazy stuff started going on within the SUNY system.

First, Smith gave a lecture on the geology of black shales at SUNY's University at Buffalo as part of an industry-regulator-academic series which tilted decidedly away from giving equal time to the views of elsewhere-dominant activists on the subject.  But the geology department organizers, for some reason, refused to post the video of Smith's lecture afterwards.  It took this blog seven months of sticking with a Freedom of Information Law battle to get that video kicked free, which, afterwards, turned out to be about as sleepy and uncontroversial as cooler, prevailing heads might have expected.

Then, bosses at SUNY Central were pressured by anti-frack fever — which appears to be especially strong, spiteful, and over-the-top within Western New York's liberal enclave — to take notice that SUNY UB had seven months previously launched the Shale Resources and Society InstituteThe brass responded by simply killing it off.  The infraction?  Institute planners hadn't yet raised any industry money to speak of, but they sure as hell weren't ruling it out.

Somewhere along the line, New York's interminable fracking debates have come to mean that the old rules of public-private partnership, and knowledge-based leadership, have changed.  That sort of thing might still be okay for the state's teaching hospitals, for the ag college at Cornell, for the state forestry school at Syracuse, for the nanotech industry at Albany, and so on.  But all branches of New York State government are simply no longer comfortable with the oil and gas business (except as resource consumers).

So this is the sort of environment in which politically twitchy administrators at State Ed must now try to hire a replacement State Geologist.  This is more along the lines of observation (and accusation) than actual documentation from State Ed's opening announcement, but, to keep such a clampdown fully clamped down, the State Museum is undoubtedly needing a Museum Scientist 4 (State Geologist) with at least two to five years of professional experience —  but none related to the resource extraction industry, and none on a project directly or indirectly funded by industry.

Anybody is free to double-check this with any personnel or funding administrator at any public or private college in New York, but I think it's fair to say this is a completely impractical, counter-sensical standard. 
It's a manic black-listing of actual expertise.

In fact, it's the sort of standard that would disqualify an Agriculture Commissioner who now or ever actually worked as a farmer (anybody remember Darrell Aubertine, or take notice of his replacement, Richard Ball?), an Energy Commissioner who ever did time with a utility, a President at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry who ever led a private environmental consultant (anybody remember Dr. Cornelius Murphy?), or even a State Forester who ever cruised timber.

On the fracking thing, such a geologist must be either very quiet, very afraid, or very undecided. 

If State Ed's HR Department can manage to somehow track down a professional geologist who actually professes to be a fracking opponent — well, then, so much the better.  It could always happen, but I'm doubtful.

Anyway, could get interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


A very interesting and informative article on why New York just can't find a qualified geologist who meets their strict criteria. As the air temperature hovers near zero I would like to inform our confused governor that maybe a clean energy such as natural gas harvested from the Marcellus shale would warm the hearts of New Yorkers and help him achieve a 2nd term.