Penn State geography degree, law career are bedrock for alum's thriller fiction

Angela M. Rogers
March 16, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Joel Burcat, retired environmental lawyer turned novelist, the first step on his career path was a physical geography course.

“I grew up in Philadelphia and attended Penn State without having declared a major,” Burcat said. “At the end of my sophomore year, I was required to declare a major. I was taking a class in physical geography with Professor Robert Larkin. He suggested that a degree in geography would be a good basis for a career in environmental law. That sounded interesting, something I’d enjoy doing and I decided to pursue it.”

Although that was 50 years ago, Larkin, now professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, remembers conversations with Burcat about physical geography and his interest in becoming a lawyer.

“I told him that the federal government had just set up the Environmental Protection Agency and I thought there would be great demand in the future for lawyers with training in geography,” Larkin said.

As an undergraduate in the department, Burcat and several others formed the undergraduate student organization, known as UnderDoGs. “I was the first president and had an office with the graduate students.” Burcat said.

He was tempted to pursue a master’s degree in geography and was offered a scholarship to study at Penn State.

“I was set, however, on becoming an environmental lawyer,” Burcat said. “The geography degree was a perfect foundation for my environmental law career. The flexibility of the geography program allowed me to take courses in agronomy and soil science, surveying, cartography, geology, geomorphology, meteorology, climatology and other sciences.”

After earning his bachelor of science in geography at Penn State in 1976, Burcat attended Vermont Law School, which specializes in environmental law, then started his law career as an assistant attorney general with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now called the Department of Environmental Protection). He continued his career in Harrisburg, and with firms based in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Burcat served as the co-editor of “Pennsylvania Environmental Law and Practice” from 1994 to 2012 and was co-editor of the first edition and the 2016 edition of “The Law of Oil and Gas in Pennsylvania” — both books are published by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute Press. He received several awards, including a Pennsylvania Bar Association Distinguished Service Award, Environmental, Mineral and Natural Resources Law Section in 2007.

“My career turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be,” Burcat said. “My Penn State background in physical geography enabled me to be a successful environmental lawyer.”

Then, a sudden vision loss forced Burcat to give up his practice of law but enabled him to start a new career as a novelist.

“On Jan. 7, 2018, I contracted a disease of the eyes, called nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION),” Burcat said. “That disease robbed me of a significant portion of my vision. Enough so that I had to give up the practice of law, reading most paper and driving.”

“I loved writing and wrote for as long as I can remember,” Burcat said “I really had to set my writing to the side, though, to pursue my legal career. When I was forced to retire, I began devoting myself to my writing and now do it full time.”

Burcat uses a 36-inch-wide ultra-high-definition monitor and dictation software to read and write, and his background in geography and law contributes significantly to his novels, three of which are environmental legal thrillers set in Pennsylvania. His main character is Mike Jacobs, assistant counsel with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“Mike happens to have a geography degree from Penn State and a law degree from Vermont Law School! A coincidence? You decide,” Burcat said.

He has published two novels and a third is forthcoming.

“Drink to Every Beast” deals with toxic waste dumping into the Susquehanna River, Burcat said. “At several points, Mike works with the inspector to try to find the location of the spill. He even ventures, twice, into underground anthracite mines. ‘Amid Rage’ is about a coal strip mine permit battle. Once again, Mike is on the case.”

Then Ransom heard a sound that grew slowly at first. It was unlike any he’d ever heard. It came from the highwall and was like someone prying apart a piano with a giant crowbar. It grew louder and louder. Then in a sight that would never leave him, the entire rocky face peeled away from the solid rock behind it, in a single sheet. Thousands of tons of rock separated from the highwall as a slab. The sight was biblical. … Boulders smashed into the SUV, and rock missiles the size of pumpkins shattered its windows. A cloud of dust washed over them covering everything in a fine white powder. Men screamed behind him …” (Amid Rage, p. 100)

In both novels, Burcat’s Penn State background contributed to his ability to write those scenes and make them authentic, he said.

“Descriptions of terrain, geology, location of businesses and homes, and human impact on the land all come from my background as a geographer, Burcat said. “Details about the investigation an environmental lawyer would do at DEP and courtroom scenes come directly from my environmental law background, including cases I have worked on.”

The next novel in the series is “Strange Fire,” about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

“Penn State and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences play a huge role in that story and are front and center in a number of scenes,” Burcat said. “It’s my way of sharing the many great memories of my time at Penn State and showing my thankfulness for my geography degree.”

Last Updated March 18, 2021