Mr. Mulvaney Goes to Washington

by | Dec 7, 2023 | Academics, Awards and Achievements, Featured

Dustin Mulvaney testified in front of the congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in Washington, DC on November 30. Photo by Jef Caers.

From July to November, there were any number of congressional hearings on any number of subjects, but Spartans had special reason to pay attention to two — in two separate hearings this fall, San José State’s Dustin Mulvaney, professor of environmental studies, testified in front of Congress, displaying his scientific expertise in our nation’s capital. 

Mulvaney testified before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources during its hearing on “Examining the Methodology and Structure of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Critical Minerals List” on September 13. On November 30, he spoke to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology about research and development needs to improve security of critical mineral and material supply chains. 

We asked Mulvaney to tell us what testifying in front of Congress is like and to pass on his experience and advice. The following reflects his first experience testifying on September 13. 

What was the main point you were trying to get across about your research?

Dustin Mulvaney (DM): I testified at the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals. The hearing was about critical minerals, materials needed to make important things in our economy from wind turbines to semiconductors, and public policy to encourage more resilient supplies. 

My testimony emphasized circular economy approaches (which are more sustainable economic practices) to securing critical materials, from recycling to recovering them from mining waste. Much of the discussion was also about reforming the 1872 Mining Law. 

Mulvaney spoke twice in congressional hearings this fall. Photo courtesy of Dustin Mulvaney.

Mulvaney spoke twice in congressional hearings this fall. Photo courtesy of Dustin Mulvaney.

 The 151-year old mining law needs reform because the current law has caused harm to Native American communities, was written long before environmental laws and lacks adequate safeguards for ecosystems and water. Mining companies take minerals for free from public lands, which results in taxpayers cleaning up mining waste when mines close or go out of business. When I testified, an interagency working report released the day prior said reforming the law was necessary to ensure that critical minerals mining is sustainable and just. 

Mining waste called tailings are left behind at mine sites and contain lots of critical metals. Chemical processes can be designed to remove some metals and minerals so they can be made into new products. [British-Australian multinational mining company] Rio Tinto, for example, announced recently that they are recovering tellurium from copper mining waste for photovoltaics. The Department of Energy has grant programs to recover rare earth elements from coal tailings. These are important efforts because mining waste has already been mined and it could displace potential new mining activities needed to build green energy. 

How did it feel to testify in front of Congress? 

DM: It was a humbling experience and it was great to see policymakers giving this topic the attention they did.

What did you do to prepare for your testimony? What goal did you have for yourself and your testimony?

DM: I had to prepare a 12-page summary and five minute oral summary. I reviewed the items the policymakers were discussing, namely the critical minerals report published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I watched prior hearings to get a sense of the types of questions the committee had for witnesses. Immediately prior, I read the testimony of other witnesses.

How well did you feel that your message came across? What was the response to your testimony?

DM: I think it went pretty well. There was a very supportive response from those familiar with these issues. 

There was also an interagency report on mining that suggested over 60 reforms that can be accomplished via administrative action and some that require congressional action. There are two bills in the House and Senate, but they have a few minor differences to be resolved. It’s not clear it has the full support of Congress at this time, even if these can be resolved. But it’ll be back in the next congress, if not this one, and many of the recommendations can be implemented by the Department of the Interior and Forest Service. 

What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

DM: You never know when you will be called upon for public service, so be prepared!

Mulvaney wasn’t alone in DC this year: another Spartan faculty member, Ali Tohidi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, testified before the full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee during the “Enhancing Fire Weather Prediction and Coordination” hearing on July 12.

Stay up to date with the environmental studies department’s work and research.