Laura Pence, Ph.D.
2012-2013 ACS Congressional Fellow
Laura Pence has been a chemistry professor at the University of Hartford for the past 17 years. Her research focuses on synthetic inorganic chemistry, primarily working on transition metal coordination chemistry. As a professor, she has worked to incorporate sustainability across the curriculum and to encourage technology and information literacy into classes of all levels. Pence earned her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry from Michigan State University in August of 1992. As an ACS Congressional Fellow, Laura joined the staff of Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), where she worked on energy, environment, and natural resources management issues.
Year-End Fellowship Report
Water Resources Development Act (S. 601)
Having read Cadillac Desert many years ago about the history of water issues in the West, I had developed a long-standing interest in the variation of water resource challenges around the country. When I learned through my network of fellow Fellows that the Congress was working on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), I sought the opportunity to take on that policy area. WRDA bills were intended to be passed every other year, but the last WRDA to be enacted was in 2007, so the situation initially did not look promising. The main purpose of WRDA is to authorize projects that the US. Army Corps of Engineers carries out, but the bill also sets policy and procedural directions for the Corps. Previously, WRDA has been a bill of earmarks, so in today’s post-earmark environment, it was a challenge to write the bill differently.
My first task was to investigate the Colorado-based projects that had been previously recommended for inclusion as earmarks and to establish their status, relevance, and eligibility. I also needed to seek out new project needs that should be added to the list. With the help of the regional Bennet staff, Colorado State government staff, local stakeholders, and the Army Corps, I researched nearly 25 water projects. Ultimately, none of them were eligible for the WRDA bill, but several had the potential to move ahead without federal authorization. In those cases, I facilitated communication among local stakeholders, regional Bennet staff and Army Corps personnel to establish connections, educate each party about the needs of the others, and start the process on those projects. After the project request was submitted, I initiated and executed a Colorado Delegation-wide letter of support for the project and supported press coverage of the issue.
When the draft bill became available, I went through the 500+ pages and identified provisions which might specifically benefit Colorado. In consultation again with state stakeholders, I identified what provisions to support, and I prepared a joint letter to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works from the two Colorado Senators.
Budget Resolution (S. Con.Res. 8)
In 2013, the Senate passed a budget for the first time in four years. The 50 hours of debate were followed by a marathon vote-a-rama, which is rapid fire voting on amendments. This process engages the entire office staff as budget amendments may address any and every policy area. For this project, I learned to write vote summaries that the senior staff and senator might review before a given vote. These were one page documents that included a summary of the issue, the impact of the amendment, the arguments in favor and in opposition and the impact on Colorado. Of the nearly 600 amendments filed for the budget, I drafted vote summaries for 40 amendments over two days. In a few cases, I had a working knowledge of the issue and could prepare a recommendation quickly; in other cases, I needed to read the amendment carefully to understand its intent and then research the issue to understand the details and Colorado implications of a given issue.
My experience of writing vote summaries during the budget was an invaluable preparation when WRDA came to the floor in May. As the lead on this bill, it was my responsibility to monitor the floor action, prepare for votes and write these summaries. At times, there was plenty of notice for votes, but at other times, there was a mere 15 minutes to prepare a summary before the Senator needed to be on the floor. Writer’s block or not feeling like working were not options in the fast-paced action of the Senate.
Farm Bill (S. 954)
WRDA was immediately followed on the floor by the Farm Bill, which includes forestry, energy, and conservation titles in addition to crop insurance and farm subsidies. I was part of a team ensuring that we were always poised for rapid action if votes were called suddenly. I wrote vote summaries for all of the non-agricultural amendments among the nearly 200 amendments filed. I also managed the amendment tracking for the office and watched the floor to be prepared for votes.
Shortly after the passage of the Farm Bill and WRDA, the fire season started with a vengeance in Colorado. For several weeks, I wrote briefing memos, sometimes twice per day, to keep the Senator up to date on the developments back in the state. During this time, the Black Forest Fire burned 15,000 acres north of Colorado Springs, destroying nearly 500 homes, and the West Fork Fire Complex, composed of four fires close together in the western part of the state, scorched 110,000 acres on both sides of the Continental Divide. In one single day early in the incident, the West Fork Fire went on a seven mile run and tripled in size. The daily memos I wrote required synthesizing and filtering information from multiple federal, state, and local agencies and media outlets as well as consulting with all of the regional Bennet staff to ensure that the data were accurate.
Visit to Colorado
Over the April/May recess, I spent a week in Colorado where I had the opportunity to visit a number of projects on which I had worked. I represented both the Senator and my Fellowship program during these visits. Some of the highlights were spending a day in Colorado Springs visiting the burn scar of the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and seeing the various strategies to try to mitigate flood risks as a result of the fire. I also visited the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), National Ice Core Lab (NICL), the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), Colorado State University College of Natural Resources, the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). A number of these visits were scheduled as follow-up interactions from meetings in DC, and several people I met during the visits to Colorado subsequently came to DC to visit our office as well. I had asked my contacts at the various agencies not to stint the science, and thus I learned more than I would have at half a dozen research conferences. I capped off the visit with a day in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to appreciate the scenic beauty of my adopted state.
Spending a year observing and participating in the legislative process will allow me to contribute far more effectively to policy discussions on ACS’s Committee on Environmental Improvement if I am able to return to membership on that committee. I have become a well-informed generalist for the major policy issues in energy, environment, and science as well as with water resources, forestry, and forest fires, all of which will contribute to course revisions as I return to my position as a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Hartford.
I have been invited to participate in the ACS Experts program, which includes training to learn effective interactions between scientists and the media as well as with state and local government officials. The University of Hartford supports these activities and will help to connect me with opportunities to serve as an expert on energy, environment, and natural resource issues.
I kept a blog of my professional and personal adventures throughout the year, which ultimately ended up as more than 100 stories of my experiences. Those records may be found at DrPence.wordpress.com.