Marcellus Shale: Just the Latest Pennsylvania Energy Source

October 12, 2010 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Geosciences professor Rudy Slingerland knew what had brought so many people to his Huddle with the Faculty presentation Saturday morning: the Marcellus Shale. So he took a few minutes to disabuse us of the notion that he could provide any hot financial tips.

He explained how he had told his father that he had no interest in the family’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bradford County—“I’m going to be a geology professor,” Slingerland ’77g had said—and how someone else now owns the land that’s worth $2 million in natural gas leases.

But Slingerland’s career decision paid off for us as he traced Pennsylvania’s vital role in the energy industry, from wood to coal to oil to natural gas. He made sure we fully understood these two themes:

—A population’s demand for a certain energy source eventually depletes that energy source.

—There is no environmentally benign energy source.

That established, Slingerman delivered a wonderfully informative lecture. You want to talk about crossing the boundaries of academic disciplines? In the course of an hour, he touched on geology, history, art, and sports, and he even threw in a pop culture reference: “Black gold. Texas tea.” (Beverly Hillbillies, of course.)

The geology: Why is Pennsylvania so rich in energy resources? Because 300 million years ago, our state was situated right on the equator, on the edge of mountains that formed when North America crashed into Africa. On its other edge: an inland lake. The plants that grew there (club mosses, tree ferns, etc.) were perfect to turn into peat, which in turn, under pressure, turns into coal. And the remains of the animals that lived there gradually turned into oil.

The history: I didn’t know that from 1830 to 1880, the Centre County region was the primary source of pig iron in the U.S., thanks to abundant forests that provided fuel for smelters (That’s why there’s a town called Pennsylvania Furnace about 12 miles from here and you can find the Centre Furnace Mansion down the hill from Beaver Stadium.) Slingerman also spun the tale of the “two schemers,” George Bissell and James Townsend, who were the brains and bankroll behind the guy I learned about in school,  Edwin Drake, who drilled the country’s first oil well in Titusville.

The art: Slingerman dressed up his PowerPoint with images from the Steidle Collection, which is on display at the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery. Edward Steidle, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 1929 to 1953, collected paintings from WPA artists who were told, as Slingerman put it, to “go out and document the energy industry.”

The sports: Slingerman showed a photo of “breaker boys” taking a break from working at a Pennsylvania coal mine in 1910—by playing football. And he noted that Penn State’s 1912 team was undefeated. (The 1911 team was undefeated, also, but had one tie.) “I wouldn’t want to take those guys on,” Slingerman said. “This is really brutal work.”

Then it was back to geology and the crux of the matter. Use of each energy source starts slowly, peaks, and then falls as resources are depleted. (And the price skyrockets.) That’s called the Hubbert curve, and Slingerman showed graphs that detailed the rise and fall of wood (peak 1870), coal (peak 1917), and oil (peak for domestic sources, 1970). As one resource becomes harder to find, we need to find another resource to take its place. So the rise of coal didn’t happen solely because coal was a more efficient energy source; it happened because the forests were disappearing. And that’s been the case every step of the way.

Which brings us to the Marcellus Shale, which he says will follow the same curve. It’s an issue that’s going to be front and center in Pennsylvania—and at Penn State—for quite a while, and now I feel like I’m better equipped to understand it.

Lori Shontz, senior editor


Entry filed under: Alumni Association. Tags: , .

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