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MARS Project, Industry Affiliates Program Has Its Benefits

Published: June 15, 2011

For CSULB geological sciences professor Rick Behl, the word MARS means more than just the red planet.

It also stands for Monterey and Related Sedimentary Rocks, one of his research specialties and coveted by the petroleum and natural gas industries as potential sources of those products.

Although new green energy sources are expanding, oil and gas will remain part of the global energy mix for years to come. And, with renewed political interest in making the United States less dependent on foreign oil, university experts like Behl are reaching out to exploration and production companies to help them find new sources as well as provide trained geologists to join their workforce.

Behl is advancing his lab’s expertise on the Monterey Formation—a vast California deposit of rocks that has the unusual characteristic of both forming and storing oil and gas—by inviting petroleum and gas companies to support his research as part of CSULB’s first industry affiliates program (IAP).

“IAPs are a mainstay of funding research at a lot of schools that have strong industrial ties like Stanford, University of Texas, University of Oklahoma, Penn State and others. But we don’t have anything like that here,” he explained, even though CSULB also has strength in the petroleum geology field.

Behl is an expert on sedimentary geology—how mud, sand, rocks, and organic material from plants and animals form layers that change through pressure and heat over millions of years. Those deposits often are prime sources of hydrocarbons.

Besides Behl, the Geological Sciences Department has several other faculty members with experience in the petroleum industry—Tom Kelty worked in international exploration for Shell before he earned his Ph.D., and department chair Robert D. Francis worked for Getty and Texaco. All three professors teach petroleum geology and have guided students in an industry-sponsored oil exploration competition.

The department also houses the Los Angeles Basin Subsurface Data Center, a major collection of geologic records such as well drilling logs donated by gas and oil companies and other researchers.

Behl is a member and a past distinguished lecturer of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists as well as past president of the Pacific Section of the Society for Sedimentary Geology. His diverse research interests also include the potential role of methane in global warming and he recently was invited to write a commentary article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He said that petroleum firms’ interest in the Monterey Formation has fluctuated since the beginning of the last century, when they realized California had rich oil supplies. The last significant research into the Monterey took place in the 1970s and ’80s when many of the state’s offshore oil platforms were built. But, since then, there was little scientific research in these particular rocks.

“I found myself in the strange position of being one of the last non-retired broad experts on this formation,” he said. “I’ve always loved working with these rocks. I did my doctoral dissertation on them, and I’ve done a small amount of consulting over the years and kept working at it in a low-key way, even though most of my work was on paleoclimate studies. But it’s very fascinating because it covers a wide variety of different aspects of geology.”

MARS Project, Industry Affiliates Program Has Its Benefits
Rick Behl during a field study.

Part of the renewed interest in the Monterey Formation correlates with the energy industry’s interest in obtaining oil and gas from sedimentary rocks called shale, he said.

“With the discovery that hydrocarbons could be extracted from these kinds of rocks, the U.S. has gone from being behind Russia in gas reserves to being the world leader.” However, the extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, has led to environmental concerns in some places where the reserves are at a relatively shallow depth, and those concerns need to be addressed, Behl explained.

Behl worked with CSULB’s Office of Research and External Support to develop the MARS Project, for which he expects to have up to eight to 10 founding member firms this summer. To make the program more appealing to prospective supporters, Behl invited Prof. Michael Gross from Florida International University to be co-leader. “He’s one of the world’s experts in the deformation of these kinds of rocks and how they fracture—both naturally and artificially,” Behl said. “He filled in a hole in my expertise that lets the MARS Project present a more complete research package.”

Firms will provide an annual donation to support the work of Behl and his undergraduate, master’s and postdoctoral students, with a portion going to the Gross lab. In return, the MARS Project will provide members with yearly benefits including an annual symposium at CSULB to hear research updates, participation in a Southern California field study to see firsthand what the professors and students have learned, and by attending a one-day short course on a geological topic of value to their firms.

“At CSULB, as opposed to research-focused universities, we usually are not able to financially support our grad students,” Behl explained. “We don’t pay many of them a salary; most of them are doing it out of their own love and most are working second jobs while going to school. But graduate students can remain much more focused and can work more effectively when they don’t have to work outside and they’re getting paid to do their own thesis research. Our budgets have been so limited lately that we have not even been able to offer as many grad students paid teaching assistantships in our department as we used to. But now, with industry funding for the MARS Project, I am excited about the potential of funding a whole group of master’s students.”

Moreover, “It’s going to be putting these students face-to-face with quite a few petroleum geologists from different oil companies who will be able to see what my students know and what they can accomplish. The MARS Project activities are going to be a very good recruiting device for the oil companies and great career opportunities for students working in the program,” Behl said. “They’re going to be presenting at the symposium to these petroleum geologists, and they will be assisting on the field trips. We have our work cut out for us, though—we need to be productive enough that the companies feel they’re getting something beneficial out of it, so we’ll be working hard at that.”