Monday, May 28, 2007

Arizona geologist flies on NPR

NPR aired an excellent piece this morning on Flagstaff, Arizona geologist-pilot-physician-photographer Michael Collier - read it at

Collier's latest book (#13) is Over the Mountains, An Aerial View of Geology (Mikaya Press), described as "the first in a new series of picture books focused on the evolution of landscapes."

He also has an exhibit of 45 photographs, entitled Stones from the Sky, that will be shown at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., running from June 7 to Sept. 14, 2007.

The UA Press published a number of Collier's books -

Among many other awards, Collier is the 2006 recipient of AGI’s Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of Earth Sciences award.

Monday, May 21, 2007

An Arizona tellurium rush?

As recently as 2000, the price of the element tellurium averaged $3.82 pound, according to the USGS ( Last year it went to $96 and this year it hit $100. So, what’s up?

An investment report released last month by Jack Lifton at says that this fall, Intel and Samsung "will introduce flash memory replacements…that can be used, erased, and used again indefinitely, but, rather than being crystalline silicon technology based, are made from tellurium based glasses composed of germanium, antimony, and tellurium.” They offer the promise of low-cost reliable electronics including smart cell phones, according to Lifton.

Lifton also briefly mentioned the military’s use of tellurium and selenium in solar energy conversion. Coincidentally, Phoenix-based First Solar Inc. which went public last fall, produces photovoltaic solar panels (ie, electricity producing panels) using cadmium tellurium as the absorption layer. First Solar says in their annual report that, “Cadmium tellurium…has the potential to deliver competitive conversion efficiencies with approximately 1% of the semiconductor material used by traditional crystalline silicon solar modules.” This reduces the cost of solar panels, making them more competitive. [Note – in the interest of disclosure - I own stock in First Solar].

Why does all this matter? Well, it turns out there are no primary tellurium mines in the US and perhaps the world. Tellurium is produced mostly as a by-product of copper refining. Los Alamos National Lab says that tellurium "is recovered commercially from anode muds produced during the electrolytic refining of blister copper. The U.S., Canada, Peru, and Japan are the largest Free World producers of the element." A brief survey of my contacts in the copper mining business turned up no one planning on going after tellurium as a product (or at least no one willing to admit it). World production is only about 215 tons.

However, at $100 per pound and the potential for major new demands on the mineral, it seems possible that tellurium could follow in the footsteps of molybdenum, another ‘worthless’ mineral that now is a major contributor to mining company bottom lines and the state's economy.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lawsuit could prohibit geologists from making maps

A lawsuit filed against the federal government by four trade associations could prohibit geologists, geographers, and many other professionals from making maps using federal funds, according to the American Association of Geographers (

MAPPS, (Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and Council on Federal Procurement of Architectural and Engineering Services (COFPAES) is suing the U.S. Government over regulations for federal procurement of architectural and engineering services, including surveying and mapping, in regards to qualifications based selection (QBS) process in the Brooks Act (40 USC 1101 et. seq.)

The MAPPS plaintiffs filed suit to force the US Government’s Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council to “define ‘survey and mapping’ so as to include contracts and subcontracts for services for Federal agencies for collecting, storing, retrieving, or disseminating graphical or digital data depicting natural or man made physical features, phenomena and boundaries of the earth and any information relating thereto, including but not limited to surveys, maps, charts, remote sensing data and images and aerial photographic services.” [emphasis added]

My reading of this section of the complaint seems to make it clear that geologists would be prohibited from using Federal funds for almost everything we do, unless we work under the direction of a licensed engineer or surveyor.

AAG filed an amicus brief this spring, stating in part:

“…a victory for plaintiffs would not only insulate all federal mapping contracts from price competition, but also exclude everyone else – that is, anyone and everyone other than licensed engineers and surveyors – from even being eligible to receive a federal mapping contract, even where engineers and surveyors lack the training and subject matter expertise needed to perform the contract.”

People following this lawsuit say we can expect a ruling from the judge at any time.

Most of EarthScope seismic stations installed in Arizona: can we make some permanent?

All but a about a dozen of the total 58 stations in the EarthScope
( USArray Transportable Array (TA) of broadband
seismic stations are installed in Arizona at present. A map of the stations was published in "Arizona Geology" last year (

[right: broadband seismic station in New Mexico is similar to those in Arizona. Courtesy EarthScope]

Prof. Matt Fouch at ASU reports that “many of the stations are returning
better data than permanent station installations, and data from the TA
have already been extremely useful in helping constrain crustal thickness
and other regional structure. The TA operations facility has detected
earthquakes and mine blasts at the magnitude 1-2 threshold. It opens up
the issue of potential seismic hazard estimates in other regions of the
state besides the Flagstaff region, which has typically been the only area
with any sort of station coverage. Data from the TA have also already
been extremely useful for helping reform ideas about things like Basin and
Range extension and Colorado Plateau uplift, but the array is still new
enough that we need to wait for more events before we can really make a
fundamental contribution to some of these issues.”

There is now an unanticipated opportunity to keep some of these broadband
seismometers in the state after the array moves east (currently scheduled
to move 12-24 months from now). Oregon and Washington raised $500,000
from private foundations to purchase key TA stations, while Nevada is
seeking a Congressional earmark to acquire stations in that state and have
the USGS maintain them.

There are already 2 stations (at Organ Pipe and Petrified Forest National
Monuments) that the TA plans to leave in the state, and they will operate
and archive the data in near real-time for the next ~10 years. We have
an opportunity to acquire more of these stations and essentially instantly
build a very high-quality seismic network in the state if we can identify
funds to pay for replacement stations as the Array moves eastward.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Investigation could impact copper, water deals

The FBI investigation into a land deal involving Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi could affect the Resolution copper mine and water resources in the Upper San Pedro Basin, with further domino-like impacts.

The Arizona Daily Star last month reported that:

“a 480-acre retired farm on the San Pedro River, …could also threaten the future of Fort Huachuca, officials say. There are concerns that the farm — the critical property in two failed land swaps aimed at protecting the San Pedro — could now be put back into agricultural use, jeopardizing efforts to balance water use in the region, which in turn could force cutbacks or even closure of the fort. … Critics say the first failed swap benefited James Sandlin, a friend and former business partner of Renzi's.”

“Because of its closeness to the San Pedro and the amount of water the retired farmland once used, the Sandlin property is crucial to the river and, in turn, neighboring Fort Huachuca, which is under court order to cut water consumption in and around the river.

“The fort’s future and the future of the San Pedro are inextricably linked,” said Col. Jonathan Hunter, the fort’s garrison commander.”

Bill Hess of the Sierra Vista Herald/Review wrote yesterday that, “The land involved in the swap has been put back on the market. [emphasis added] Some believe that if it is sold to a developer or to an agricultural business, water will again be pumped to the detriment of the river and the partnership’s goal of finding ways to conserve water."

The Herald reports that the water deficit in the Upper San Pedro Basin - the difference between what is being pumped from the aquifer and what is being recharged – is 10,800 acre-feet, instead of the previously measured 7,700 acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The higher number is due to better quality measurements.

This double whammy will make it harder to meet the region's water goals.

Another twist on these complex deals is a recent Wall Street Journal story that described the land deal role in the Resolution copper mine:

“North America's largest copper lode is believed to be buried more than a mile beneath Apache Leap, the stark red cliffs that loom above this storied Old West town about an hour east of Phoenix. Resolution Copper Co., a joint venture between Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, wants to mine it. But first it needs Congress to approve a federal land exchange, under which Resolution would swap 5,000 acres of private land for 3,000 acres of public land near its planned mine.

In exchange for supporting the bill, the local congressman, Rick Renzi, a Republican, insisted on something in return: He wanted Resolution to buy, as part of the land swap, a 480-acre alfalfa field near his hometown of Sierra Vista, according to documents and people involved in the deal.

Resolution executives refused. For starters, they thought the land was overpriced, people close to the deal say. More troubling, they discovered it was owned by Mr. Renzi's former business partner, these people say.

Resolution wasn't the only party troubled by the congressman's demands. His chief of staff resigned and began cooperating secretly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to witnesses and others close to the case. The FBI began a preliminary inquiry that was first reported in October, just before Mr. Renzi was elected to a third term.”

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Scientists are lousy communicators

Scientists do a lousy job of communicating to non-scientists. That's one reason science and scientists are being effectively beaten up and demonized in a variety of public debates on issues like evolution and climate change.

I refer you to a new website on communicating science - "Speaking Science 2.0" - put together by Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney.

Chris is Wash. DC correspondent for Seed magazine, author of "The Republican War on Science" and the about-to-be-released book "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming." He blogs at Matt is professor of communications at American University in Wash. DC and is widely recognized for his work on framing science messages (also the name of his blog -

They recently published op-ed pieces in Science and the Washington Post that attracted widespread national attention. They are starting a nationwide lecture tour today on this topic.

A synopsis of their talk follows below:

Speaking Science 2.0

"We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are."
-- Talmud scripture

"It's not what you say, it's what people hear."
--Republican strategist Frank Luntz

Over the past several years, the seemingly never-ending fights over
evolution, embryonic stem cell research, global climate change, and
many other topics have led to a troubling revelation. Scientific
knowledge, alone, does not always suffice when it comes to winning
political arguments, changing government policies, or influencing
public opinion. Put simply, the media, policymakers, and the public
consume scientific information in a vastly different way than do the
scientists who generate it. As a result, scientists and their
organizations repeatedly face difficult challenges in explaining their
knowledge to diverse groups of citizens.

As issues at the intersection of science and politics gain more and
more attention, something beyond pure science--beyond "getting the
facts out there"--will be necessary to break through to the public.
But what are the new directions? It's time to question some central
assumptions and focus on fresh ideas.

**A conversation about new directions in science communication.**

In this joint presentation, journalist Chris Mooney and communication
professor Matthew Nisbet explain how scientists and their allies can
"reframe" old debates in new ways, while taking advantage of a
fragmented media environment to connect with a broader American
public. Drawing on case studies from the battles over stem cell
research, evolution, global warming, hurricanes, and other subjects, a
key point of emphasis will be that scientists must adopt a language
that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the
pitfall of seeming to belittle fellow citizens or attacking their
religious beliefs.

Innovative strategies for public engagement could not be more urgent:
Science will figure, as never before, in the 2008 presidential
campaign and beyond. Scientific "facts" will increasingly be pulled
into fraught political contexts, and bent and twisted in myriad ways.
This political environment can seem perplexing to scientists, or
worse. But it's one to which they must adapt if they want their
hard-won knowledge to play its necessary role in shaping the future of
our nation.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Global demand for resources impacts Arizona

My colleague Vince Matthews, State Geologist of Colorado, is talking around the country about the demand for natural resources by China, India, and other growing economies, and how that is affecting the U.S. Vince shared his slides and graphs with me, noting that the impacts he sees for Colorado will be similar for Arizona.

This month’s AAPG Explorer magazine quotes Vince’s recent talk to the AAPG annual meeting in Long Beach: “Chinese companies and their rivals are scouring the globe for access to the raw materials needed to sustain the Asian nation’s growth as commodity prices surge.”

The list includes energy resources such as oil and natural gas, coal, and uranium. The global demand for copper is responsible for the record prices of the last year or so which has helped make Arizona the number one mining state in the nation. Demand for a wide array of other minerals is also

Vince expects the increasing competition for resources to bring

· Inflation

· Shortages of raw materials

· Pressures to develop more resources in the states

· Potential conflicts with multinational corporations in the states

The bigger problem may be that Vince doesn’t see any obvious solutions to what he views as a pending crisis.

What comes to mind immediately are the number of wars that have been fought over access to or control of natural resources. Are we destined for similar instabilities in coming years?

Continued controversy over fossil collecting on public lands

The long-enduring debate over collecting fossils on federal lands is continuing.

According to a report by the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program, Arizona’s Rep. Raul Grijalva raised concerns about unintended consequences during a recent hearing on the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (HR 554) before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which he chairs.

The bills sponsor, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) testified it “provides stiff penalties for crimes involving the theft and vandalism of Fossils of National Significance (FONS) in order to deter the illegal collection of these resources on public lands. And, it is important to note that the bill seeks only to penalize those who knowingly violate the law and seek to illegally profit from these public resources. It does not place any new restrictions on amateur collectors who by and large respect the value of these fossils. It is limited to public lands, and will in no way affect private land-owners. Furthermore, this bill mandates that all such fossils taken from federal land be curated at museums or suitable depositories. Lastly, it standardizes the permitting practices for excavation on public lands to ensure that fossils are not needlessly damaged.”

The bill was opposed Peter L. Larson, President of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc, a commercial fossil company based in South Dakota. Larson argued that the bill would limit collecting to academics only and that amateurs and commercial companies unearth fossils that would otherwise be lost to weathering or never found by the scientific community. Larson also argued against allowing scientists and federal land managers to keep secret the locations of significant finds.

This debate, which has played out over many years, comes down to a few basic battles:

· Should commercial collectors be allowed to take fossils from public lands and sell them to private collectors or should public fossils remain in public ownership for display and scientific study?

· Does allowing amateurs to collect vertebrate fossils on public land create a “back-door” commercial channel?

· Can we keep fossil locations on public lands secret in order to prevent looters from stealing the fossils and damaging or destroying the geologic context?

· What fossils on public lands, if any, are appropriate for non-scientific collecting?

Washington watchers say that HR 554 is unlikely to move forward without resolution of these long-standing differences.