Retiring Engelder’s expertise helped fuel natural gas boom across nation

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Fifty-eight years ago, Terry Engelder wasn’t yet a world-renowned geoscientist. He was a kid with a keen interest in science, a passion ignited by the space race and fueled by the funds that flowed into schools as the nation sought the next generation of discovery.

Using a posterboard and markers, Engelder sketched “Faulting in Western New York” for the junior high science fair. Among the layers Engelder shaped below his hometown was the Marcellus Shale, which decades later he would make famous after successfully projecting it as the second-largest extractable natural gas field in the world.

But even a grown-up Engelder, now a geosciences professor at Penn State, couldn’t predict how that one estimate would dominate and redefine his decades-long career, which draws to a close in June.

The magic number

During a webinar in 2007, Engelder was asked how much accessible natural gas rested in the Marcellus Shale. He was stumped, so after the event he did what any scientist would do; he grabbed the first piece of scrap paper he could find and did a quick calculation. The result? That 50 trillion cubic feet of gas — more than 25 times the U.S. Geological Survey estimate — could be extracted from the enormous expanse of rock that spans six states.

That piqued the interests of natural gas companies, and, when more data from testing wells started funneling in, Engelder improved his estimate for technically recoverable gas to 489 trillion cubic feet, about 18 years’ worth of total U.S. gas consumption.

“The calculation that I did was based on very little data and a whole heck of a lot of insight. And maybe you could argue that bubble gum and some rubber bands held it together but it worked,” said Engelder. “That was the firm number that allowed a lot of people who spent money on this to move forward. That particular calculation was by far the highlight of my career.”

Engelder said people recognized that vast reserves of gas were in the Marcellus Shale, but most thought they were inaccessible. But when fundamental changes in technology, through hydrofracturing, or fracking, showed promise in areas such as Texas, Engelder applied that technology to his calculation.

The result led to a natural gas boom that — for the first time in decades — allowed the nation to extract more natural gas than it used. It also led to a boom in jobs for the region and hundreds of millions of dollars in lease bonuses flowed into the region.

“In terms of satisfaction, very few scientists can say that they did something that affected a lot of people in the state and the nation in such a palpable way,” said Engelder. “The amount of money that was spent in Pennsylvania, particularly off of the excitement generated by that initial projection, was rather remarkable.”

That projection thrust Engelder into the spotlight, as well. He’s been interviewed by nearly 600 reporters worldwide. He’s been cited by Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” alongside Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. He’s served on commissions advocating for the safe extraction of natural gas for former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and current governor Tom Wolf.

Engelder said despite losing valuable research time during those years of intense public interest in his expertise, he doesn’t regret the countless hours he’s spent educating the public and advocating for U.S. energy sustainability.

“There are a number of ways that science manifests itself,” said Engelder. “One way is writing peer-reviewed papers. Another is serving as a liaison between science and the public, and very few scientists have the opportunity for such intense interaction with the public.”

He does have one regret.

Mid-boom, he was two hours into an interview when Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh asked if he could take a picture of a piece of Engelder’s Marcellus Shale. Rushed for class, Engelder shooed the reporter away.

A few months later, after touching down in Houston, something in the newsstand caught his eye.

Terry Engelder, a Penn State geoscientist who first predicted there was vast amounts of accessible natural gas within the Marcellus Shale, was featured on the cover of Time in 2011.

Terry Engelder, a Penn State geoscientist who first predicted there was vast amounts of accessible natural gas within the Marcellus Shale, was featured on the cover of Time in 2011, signing the cover alongside energy players such as billionaires T. Boone Pickens and George Mitchell and former governors Tom Ridge and Tom Corbett.

Image: Penn State

“I saw someone else’s shale on the cover of Time magazine and realized that I just really blew it because I had a chance to have a piece of my shale grace the cover of Time magazine,” said Engelder.

Jack of all trades, master of none

Engelder said his eclectic mix of expertise has been both a blessing and a curse. He said scientists with a more narrow focus tend to garner more accolades. Yet he’s been all over the geological map.

After earning a master’s degree at Yale, he studied fault gouge, rocks formed by tectonic forces, and earthquake generation while earning his doctorate at Texas A&M University. For his postdoctoral work at Columbia University, he branched out into other areas of geophysics including the measurement of stress in the earth. By the time he became a member of Penn State faculty, returning to where he received his undergraduate degree (1968) while running track and cross country, his research had shifted to understanding rocks of the Appalachian Basin that are involved in the accumulation of oil and gas deposits.

That pogo-stick approach to research, he said, lead to collaboration with scientists featured in three unique projects that were cover stories in Time magazine.

He researched friction with Chris Scholz, who was quoted in a 1975 cover story “Earthquake Prediction.” His time in the field with Walter Alvarez, who discovered that a massive meteor was behind the demise of dinosaurs, led to “Dinosaur Extinction” in 1985. And his Marcellus Shale prediction led to the 2011 cover story “This Rock Could Power the World.”

Keeping busy

Retirement will afford Engelder time to dive deeper into some of his hobbies. He’s working on a book on the fracking industry and the pushback surrounding the boom. He’ll also invest more time on an art interest that surprisingly ties back to his expertise: craquelure, or the study of how painted works, including famous masterpieces in museums from the Louvre to the National Gallery, crack due to time, materials and paint.

Engelder has become somewhat of an expert on craquelure, giving talks on the topic at Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. It all started during a trip to the Louvre in France.

“You can look at an outcrop of the Marcellus Shale that has some fractures in it and the geometry of those fractures are nearly identical to the fractures in the Mona Lisa’s face,” said Engelder. “The cracks just jumped right out at me. I immediately recognized that these were patterns I was familiar with from studying rocks, so off I went.”

Terry Engelder used his geological background to find patterns in how historic works of art fracture. He's studied the Mona Lisa, and other works, to gain a better understanding of the materials, paints and painting methods used during that period.

Terry Engelder, a Penn State geoscientist, uses his geological expertise to find patterns in how historic works of art fracture. He's studied the Mona Lisa, and other works, to gain a better understanding of the materials, paints and painting methods used during that period. His hobby, craquelure, also prevents the masterpieces from being counterfeited because it's impossible to recreate the exact patterns found in the paintings.

Image: Penn State
A closeup of the Mona Lisa shows unique patterns created by the canvas and the paint shifting over time.

A closeup of the Mona Lisa shows unique patterns created by the canvas and the paint shifting over time. This study, called craquelure, is a passion of Terry Engelder, a world-renowned geoscientist who is retiring after more than three decades at Penn State.

Image: Penn State

Engelder said craquelure can be used to identify counterfeit paintings because it’s impossible to recreate the exact patterns of the world’s masterpieces. It’s also an important tool, he said, in understanding the materials used at the time and the artist’s method of paint application.

He’ll also have more time to spend with his wife, Janice, whom he met on a blind date in 1968. She was a math education major at Penn State (’69). After the family, including children, Zoe, Stacey, and Todd, returned to Happy Valley in 1985, she taught math classes at Bald Eagle Area High School, including statistics, calculus, geometry and a couple levels of algebra. 

‘The thing I’ll miss the most’

Engelder said he’s been honored to mentor and nurture so many young people in their quest to become experts in the field.

“The thing I’ll miss the most is the excitement that I find in dealing with young people,” said Engelder. “I still get excited when walking into a classroom. I still get a kick out of seeing all these eager faces. Some are there just ready to listen and soak it in. Others are there challenging me to pique their interest in the subject. I think that anyone who has taught for any length of time will tell you that sense of the classroom is something you will always miss.”

He’s also going to miss his colleagues.

“We have one of the finest geosciences departments in the world,” said Engelder. “They’re an amazing group of people to work with and to be around. I’m going to miss being a part of this group of people.”

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Last Updated August 23, 2017