Liberals Mislead On GOP Cuts To USGS In Wake Of Earthquake, Still Reason For Concern

By The Intersection | August 24, 2011 11:07 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist, policy analyst and science communications strategist, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process

My tweet deck nearly exploded yesterday during and following the earthquake. The tweets were so fast and furious that I couldn’t read my main feed. In between the humorous tweets, there were serious moments of reflection. Some folks were reporting news, others were requesting information, but the tweets that caught my attention had policy implications. One tweet in particular was posted by Michael Linden.

I retweeted it.

According to the mission on their website, “the USGS serves the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.”

In this context, cutting their budget seems, at minimum, misguided.

Later, I came across a couple of tweets from “Marcy,” author of emptywheel blog,

and,

“Marcy” expanded on her tweets on her blog,

Back in March, after the Japanese earthquake, Eric Cantor defended Republican plans to cut funding from the USGS and warning systems to help in case of a disaster.

Subsequently, liberal website Daily Kos picked up and elaborated on “Marcy’s” story by adding a quote from an examiner.com article by Roger West. They characterized it as a “Great catch from emptywheel.”

What if we where to experience a disaster like Japan? How prepared are we in our country? Yesterday house republican leader Eric Cantor defended republican proposals to cut spending for the United States Geological Survey, the National Weather Service, and NOAA…[snip]

Any local LEPC or emergency coordinator will tell you that the inability for warnings to be disseminated to the public, whether due to staffing inadequacies, radar maintenance problems, or weather radio transmitter difficulties would be disastrous.

The implication of these tweets and blog posts was that Republicans had made budget cuts that would seemingly have an impact on our ability to monitor and respond to earthquakes. In some ways, I wanted it to be true so that I could score one more political point against a party that has demonstrated reckless disregard for science. I mean, we can’t allow the Republicans to continue to implement their destructive anti-science policies on our country. The sooner we can dispense with the Republican party the better, right?

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this story. Many of the cuts recommended by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee and defended by Eric Cantor were ultimately restored and the USGS’s ability to respond to natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes will probably not be significantly impacted.

In a summary of the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee’s recommendations to the FY2012 budget the Geological Society of America (GSA) stated,

The House Interior Appropriations Bill for FY 2012 would restore proposed cuts in USGS energy, minerals & environmental health programs and natural hazards programs; the budgets for these programs would be unchanged from the FY 2011 enacted levels.

and

The Committee recommends $135,965,000 for natural hazards, equal to the fiscal year 2011 enacted level and $2,096,000 above the budget request. The recommended level restores proposed cuts to earthquake, volcano, and landslide hazards.

So, funding for USGS division of natural hazards would not be significantly cut. This took some of the sting out of the criticisms. If we are going to berate the Republicans for their ill-advised fiscal decisions, we should be sure where there is smoke, there actually is fire. However, that is only true for the immediate concern regarding earthquake monitoring.

The Republicans shouldn’t breathe easily. They will be held accountable for the cuts that were implemented at USGS. The GSA report goes on to say, “the bill would cut funding for ecosystems (-$10.7 million) and climate variability (-$23.7 million) compared to the FY 2011 enacted levels.” By preserving funds for immediate natural disasters while cutting funding for climate science, Republicans are essentially offering headache relief to a cancer patient.

Though they have escaped criticism for cutting USGS funding in the context of the earthquake, they will not escape the effects of their attacks on climate science. History will judge them for these decisions.

***Update from emptywheel blog. We need more information: Apparently, budget cuts in the 1990s led to the removal of seismic equipment at the North Anna plant. (h/t Kirk)

The Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO) is one of the primary sources for data on seismic activity in the central East Coast. In 1963, as part of the worldwide program, seismographs were installed at Blacksburg, and in 1977 several more seismographs were stationed in the Commonwealth and operated by the Virginia Division of Geology and Mineral Resources. Some of these instruments were stationed around the North Anna Nuclear Power plant, but in the 1990’s, due to budget cuts, most of the North Anna sensors were taken off line. Along with other southeastern regional seismic networks and the U.S. National Seismic Network, VTSO contributes to seismic hazard assessment in the southeastern United States and compiles a Southeastern U.S. Earthquake Catalog.

Cantor was in VA’s House of Delegates from 1992 to 2001, so there’s a decent chance he had a part in those budget cuts.

Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter, Google+ or read his occasional blog posts at “American SciCo.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Politics

Comments (7)

Links to this Post

  1. Managing Austerity's Axe | Progressive Policy Institute | September 2, 2011
  1. kirk

    Five progressives will read this, 1,000,000 progressives will read the tweets. But at least one persons reasoning is unmotivated.

  2. Even with the update from emptywheelblog added to the context, does taking some seismographs off-line affect disaster communications? Seems like apples and oranges.

    It seems like the USGS reporting system was all over this, they had seismic data up within a minute flat, and disaster communications were quick and clean. If the tools to actually communicate the disaster are still funded and in place (if I am reading your post right), then we seem to be at a place where everything worked as planned.

    A more interesting observation would be to overlay the East Coast’s seismic activity records for the past century over a map of active seismic recording stations that are hooked up to the USGS disaster system. Then you could see if there were actual gaps instead of mythical ones.

  3. Karen

    I’m progressive and read this, but missed the twitstorm. But good post, Jamie! Thanks for correcting the record.

    There’s a big nuclear plant outside of San Diego – you know, that tip of California that is the most likely to snap off the mainland when the Big One hits? Excellent planning. I don’t have a person or ideology to blame for that, but the idea of it haunts me.

  4. Re: “They will be held accountable for the cuts that were implemented” (i.e., ecosystems and climate variability) – obviously they were not. If the funding was restored for the more natural immediate disasters, it is likely that it was because they were held accountable and pressured by constituents. Whether they will in the future may depend on some catastrophic or at least highly visible event, like when the dustbowl flew over the capital.

  5. The implication of these tweets and blog posts was that Republicans had made budget cuts that would seemingly have an impact on our ability to monitor and respond to earthquakes.

    I disagree. The implication is that if Eric Cantor had gotten his way those cuts would have impacted our ability to monitor and respond to earthquakes, which is true.

    Likewise, many Republicans want to dismantle the Social Security and Medicare programs. They pay a price for that, even though their attempts to date have failed.

  6. Tony

    “…they will not escape the effects of their attacks on climate science. History will judge them for these decisions.”

    Unfortunately, no. By the time history renders it’s verdict, they will be long gone, which is one of the reasons that they could care less about the effects of their attacks. Their escape is already well in place.

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