Rocks, Joy of Sharing Leads Back to Classroom

Lawrence D. Meckel
Lawrence D. Meckel

“Rocks.”

You ask a geologist why he or she loves geology, you hope for an answer like that.

And with Lawrence D. Meckel, one of the 2011 winners of the Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award, that’s exactly how he answered when asked what it is about geology that so fascinates him.

It’s been a long love affair – the rocks got him early in life and wouldn’t let go.

“This occurred during junior high and high school,” he remembered.

And it’s still occurring, for the recipient of this year’s Grover Murray Distinguished Educator Award still enjoys the classroom and still enjoys going back to school – either to teach or to learn.

In fact, for more than 40 years Meckel has enjoyed standing in front of a room full of students as much as he’s enjoyed standing in front of cliffs of pebble conglomerate.

After graduating from both Rice University and Johns Hopkins University, Meckel took a job with Shell Development; then, he was a partner in the firm of Sneider and Meckel and Associates before forming his own firm, L.D. Meckel and Company.

But there was something about the classroom that kept bringing him back. He taught classes at Shell, was part of AAPG’s Visiting Geology program, has been a mentor and, most notably, for the past 20 years he has been an adjunct professor at the Colorado School of Mines, where he teaches Unconventional Petroleum Systems and Seismic Signatures of Reservoir Systems.

The vastness of his career – both in terms of longevity and or the people he’s taught – is reason enough for the AAPG educator honor.

But numbers alone don’t tell the story: Why does an exploration geologist with over 40 years of industry experience keep going back to the classroom?

“The excitement,” he says, “of passing on to students and professionals.”

Interestingly, his “classrooms” draw from both the university student pool as well as the professional arena, which means that his lessons and insights are received by both rookies and rock stars.

And the passion that drives his career comes from understanding that the information he imparts will be useful in geology’s holy grail – “The search for, and the development of, new fields.”

He believes university students are aware of the prize and of the potential enormous rewards, but they want to know if the “buzz” is for real – and how it will impact their careers.

“I try to focus on the efficient way to assemble and interpret data to reach those critical decision points,” he said.

He holds himself to a high standard, and wonders and worries if his methodology, as he puts it, connects the dots.

“One of the continuing rewards for me,” he said, “is to have experienced professionals say that the course material was practical and hard-hitting.”

Listen to the Birds!

That desire and conscientiousness is what the AAPG educator award is all about, as it recognizes distinguished and outstanding contributions to geological education.

Meckel, who was involved as a geologist in more than a dozen fields – including Canada’s famed Elmworth field discovery, located in west-central Alberta and adjacent British Columbia – says the road between academia and industry is a two-way street.

“It is very definitely useful to bridge the two worlds – business and academia,” Meckel said. “I feel my extensive subsurface experience allows me to put the course material into a practical and useful context. Equally important, my association with experts and talented students in many various fields at the Colorado School of Mines is a valuable learning experience, which definitely translates back into a better understanding of the subsurface.”

Of Elmworth, Meckel said his work on the famous Canadian field was “fun” and a team effort.

Perhaps he is being modest.

In “The Hunters,” by AAPG Honorary Member John Masters, a book about the search for oil and gas in western Canada, Elmworth was described as a “hundred million acres of time.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Meckel moments after he returned from Bullmouse Mountain at Elmworth and the initial discovery. Meckel and his team found cliffs of pebble conglomerate, the sorting and grading of a beach – 50 miles, they determined, of unleased, undrilled acreage.

“You could hear the goddamn seagulls,” he cried into a pay phone.

He was speaking in code.

“I was calling from a public phone at the B.C. Core Facility and there were many other geologists working there preparing for the same lease sale and could overhear the conversation,” Meckel said. “I had taken (John) Masters on a field trip to Galveston Island a year earlier. When we got to the beach, I made the rather obvious proclamation that ‘this is a beach.’

“John said he could tell that ‘because he could hear the gulls,’” he continued. “I went back to that moment to transmit our helicopter findings, hoping he would understand … and he did.”

Listen to the Rocks!

Now imagine being a student in one of his classes and hearing that story.

“After about a year of work,” he said, “we started seeing the key fingerprints of what could be a huge new field – similar to the large Wattenburg and San Juan basinal fields in the United States. This was exciting.

“The discovery of Elmworth to confirm those concepts occurred in 1976.”

He says, specifically, his role was two-fold:

  • To regionally map the various Mesozoic clastic units into the deep part of the basin, that new area of interest that had been overlooked.
  • To calibrate the log and test data with both core and outcrop rock data (depositional facies, lithologies and reservoir properties).

The discoveries today may not make him scream into a pay phone (even if he could find one), but they are no less challenging and potentially rewarding.

“All these discoveries require new thinking,” he says. “It is more important than ever to continually update ourselves on these new ideas and new techniques.”

But he has a warning, of sorts, for those in the profession.

“One concept that I hold absolutely essential for understanding the subsurface: the use of rock data (be it outcrops, cores or cuttings) to calibrate the three main data bases we use in exploration and production. These are logs, seismic and test data.

“Somehow as we move into the digital age, where we tend to work at the computer, we have also moved away from our basic obligation as geologists,” he said. “What do the rocks tell us?"

Now as we address a whole variety of unconventional petroleum systems that are very complex and new, it is even more critical than ever that we look carefully at the rocks to calibrate those three critical tools we rely on.”

Translation: It’s the rocks, stupid.

“Continuing education,” he said, “is absolutely critical.”

And to that extent, Lawrence Meckel is, too.

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