Today we celebrate 40 years of innovative research. On July 17, 1977, Berkeley Lab formed the Earth Sciences Division (ESD) in response to the U.S. energy crisis. Now—as the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area (EESA)—it has evolved into a research group studying a broad range of the most pressing environmental and subsurface energy challenges.
To commemorate this occasion, EESA has developed a collection of materials that tells the Area’s story: a timeline highlighting some of our most notable accomplishments, as well as a video that features interviews with EESA scientists. All of these resources are gathered on our 40th Anniversary page here. We’re also launching an alumni and friends network for those who have worked with us over the years.
And as we move towards our next 40 years, EESA is moving forward to solve some of the most urgent—and complex—environmental and energy problems of the 21st century. We recently launched a Strategic Plan that will guide our research for the coming decade. Learn more about it here.
As a complement to the timeline, we’re also sharing recollections and reflections from some of our scientists about EESA’s earlier days.
Susan Hubbard, Associate Lab Director and Senior Scientist
Our founding Division director, Paul Witherspoon, was a luminary in the field of hydrology and a mentor to many. Paul had the vision to bring together hydrologists, geophysicists, and geochemists who worked together on tough problems associated with subsurface energy strategies, with a primary focus on geothermal energy. Paul’s mode of bringing together expertise followed that of our Berkeley Lab founder Ernest Lawrence, who was one of the first scientists to recognize the need for and value of team science.
Our scientists work largely in teams to tackle some of the most urgent and complex environmental and energy challenges of our time. Along the way, we have contributed deeply to other subsurface energy challenges, including those associated with nuclear waste storage and geologic carbon sequestration. Through expanding our expertise to include microbial ecologists, biogeochemists and atmospheric scientists, we have been able to make some very important scientific discoveries relevant to environmental remediation, watershed and ecosystem science, and climate science.
Bob Budnitz, former Earth Sciences Division Director, Affiliate Scientist
After Paul Witherspoon became the head of the Earth Sciences Division, it tripled in size over the next five years. Because of Paul’s charisma and talent, he was able to attract a cadre of people to work there. Some of the standouts in the early years were Frank Morrison, T.N. Narasimhan, John Apps, Harold Wollenberg, Norman Goldstein, Jane Long, Bo Bodvarsson, Frank McKevlin, Neville Cook, Karsten Pruess, Ernie Majer, and Marcelo Lippmann.
We’ve been the leading place to study geothermal energy for the longest time, as well as with groundwater transport—especially with contaminants. We made a national contribution to the Yucca Mountain Project as the leading group to conduct the analysis of groundwater flow and transport underground. A lot of people, including Curt Oldenburg, worked on that. And with Margaret Torn, we started to study soil and the atmosphere 10 years ago. That’s become a major program at EESA.
EESA’s presence in geothermal for the last 40 years wouldn’t have been able to happen without having UC Berkeley—a world-renowned campus—next door. It provides the ability to collaborate with researchers, as well as bring in many graduate students.
Norm Goldstein, former Earth Sciences Division Director, Affiliate Scientist
By 1978, Paul Witherspoon had initiated both the Stripa Project in Sweden and the Cerro Prieto Geothermal Project. Our ESD staff and overall funding level more than doubled between 1977 and 1978 during which time Bo Bodvarsson, Sally Benson, Chin-Fu Tsang, and Karsten Pruess, among many others, joined the Geothermal Program. The Division took over the entire first floor of Building 90 at the Lab. Because Paul was totally involved in Stripa planning, he asked me to head the growing Geothermal Program which, thanks to him, was becoming heavily involved in a multi-year joint project with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) at their Cerro Prieto field located south of Mexicali, Mexico. Marcelo Lippman became our Cerro Prieto (CP) program coordinator, as well as one of the over 20 Berkeley Lab researchers that actively worked with CFE scientists and engineers until DOE ended the project in 1982.
The CP project was unique in many ways, one of which was it gave us unrestricted access to all the drilling, well testing, production, and geologic data that CFE had. With this foundation, CFE and Berkeley Lab developed a wealth of new scientific and engineering information that revealed the size (production capacity) and behavior of a huge high-temperature hydrothermal system undergoing fluid extraction.
CP became one of our landmark programs and one of the most notable aspects of my research during my many years at the Lab. What made it so notable was the fact that it gave us American researchers the ability to monitor the behavior of an active geothermal system as it was being produced for electricity.
When I came to the Lab, I was astounded by the freedom given to the scientists and technicians regarding the research we wanted to do. We wrote proposals to do our research, which was cutting-edge science at the time. Many of those ideas have been transported to industry.
One of EESA’s major contributions was a project led by Bo Bodvarsson. It had a major impact in understanding how to evaluate the integrity of a proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Politics killed the program. But a lot of the things that we did and learned are now being utilized in countries like Sweden and Finland where they are going ahead with their nuclear waste repositories.
Sally Benson, former Earth Sciences Division Director, Guest Senior Scientist (Currently Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford University; Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford University; Global Climate and Energy Project, Stanford University)
I was fortunate that when I became Division Director we had a fantastic team, including Ernie Majer, Jane Long, Don DePaolo, and Bo Bodvarsson. We started the environmental remediation program, nuclear waste program, climate science program, and carbon cycle program. We spent time learning and figured out areas where scientists could make a contribution.
The Kesterson Project was unique and timely. We were working on figuring out how to clean up selenium from the soils and water of the Kesterson Reservoir in California. It was led by geochemists who discovered something incredibly important—that one could detoxify selenium in situ using microbial processes and convert it to immobile nontoxic forms. That became the basis of our scientific work. At the time, the only option people had was to dig it up and put it in a landfill. I like to characterize the work we did as “science in action”—using cutting-edge discoveries and new approaches to determine precise chemical species and tracer tests to demonstrate the transport of selenium in the environment.
It was really unique in that we were doing cutting-edge research and at the same time providing that to policymakers to decide whether to go along with some innovative approaches. At the time, the ability to demonstrate the results of research to regulators and agencies in real-time was rare. We’d do an experiment and a month later we’d be in a hearing at the California State Water Quality Control Board to report on the information. The Kesterson Project set the whole stage for the bioremediation of inorganic chemicals, as well as for what we could do to bring pragmatic solutions to address urgent problems.
EESA is really unique in that it has a multitalented staff. We have technicians, who can co-invent equipment with scientists, as well as engineers. We also have chemists. The team-based culture it has for problem solving is something that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.
The Area also excels for a number of additional reasons. They have great leadership who are effective at really thinking about how to bring EESA’s capabilities to full-strength, as well as possessing excellent relationships with government officials and private companies. I also think the leadership’s foresight and ability to form big hairy audacious goals are factors in EESA’s success.
Chin-Fu Tsang, Senior Scientist Emeritus
Right from the beginning, under Paul Witherspoon’s leadership, we put an emphasis on understanding the science, as well as how we could apply the results. We tried to address problems of national or international importance, and studied the science underpinning the results of our research. Over the years, we expanded from geothermal and its related energies into nuclear waste and disposal, as well as addressing other environmental problems. EESA took the lead in the scientific community in developing the field of fracture hydrology related to the disposal of nuclear waste underground.
I think there’s a number of areas that EESA has initiated and developed into a world-leading activity. One is the multiphase flow in geothermal reservoirs and the modeling of such systems. The method was the leading edge in the area. Many people came to Berkeley from different countries to work with us. People have a can-do attitude and dive right into the research. I think it definitely has had an impact in the world.
Ernie Majer, former Earth Sciences Deputy Division Director, Affiliate Scientist
We were leaders in the geothermal world, and grew from that into nuclear waste and disposal programs in Europe and Japan. Then we expanded into work on the energy sciences, along with work on oil and gas, as well as carbon sequestration. And we’ve integrated in life sciences, engineering, and physics. We regard ourselves as the premier energy geosciences lab. I think our Lab is still the best of the best.
I think we have a lot of reasons to be proud. We have very notable scientists here—Nobel Prize winners but also the people overall seem to take pride in their work, which makes for a better work environment for everybody. Some of the work I’m most proud of are the two R&D 100 awards I received. The work I’ve done most recently focuses on induced seismicity—that is, how do you mitigate its impacts so that various technologies can move forward. We’re tasked by the Department of Energy to write the best practices and protocols for how does one handle the hazards associated with induced seismicity. They are accepted by 17 countries, and used by some regulatory agencies in the U.S.
The main thing that EESA has contributed over the years is a broad range of expertise from theory to fieldwork. No other lab can match that. We’re the only ones that has the complete package with the earth sciences.