Geologist has Vision for Wyoming

Wyoming is a geologist's paradise: it's got gemstones and metals, coal seams and earthquakes, mountains and mesas, and a little place called Yellowstone.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming is a geologist's paradise: it's got gemstones and metals, coal seams and earthquakes, mountains and mesas, and a little place called Yellowstone.

And yet the state's warden of those resources -- the Wyoming State Geological Survey -- has been a bit neglected lately. Funding for the survey has remained flat since the early 1980s. No permanent staff positions have been added since that time, though some were cut.

And then there's this: about half of Wyoming's revenue is derived from its natural resources. Yes, half.

Enter Ron Surdam, the newly appointed Wyoming state geologist.

Flanked by two Wyoming geological maps -- one of coal, and one of oil and gas -- Surdam captains the State Geological Survey from his office on the campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.


Surdam said he has a vision -- a vision of prosperity for Wyoming based on its rich natural resources.

His plan -- presented to the Joint Appropriations Interim Committee and the governor last year -- is based in part on reducing financial risk for companies interested in extracting Wyoming's resources and planning ahead for potential problems.

For example:

One thousand trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie at depths greater than 15,000 feet in the state of Wyoming, and little of that has been developed.

Costs increase nearly exponentially as drillers delve deeper, and 15,000 feet is very deep. An 8,000-to 10,000-foot well costs about $2 million, Surdam said, but a 23,000-foot well runs $10 million to $20 million. The state can help reduce investment risk and encourage gas companies to come here by assessing what locations are ideal for such deep wells.

"The only way we're going to be able to get them to expend that kind of capital is to reduce the risk," Surdam said.

Diamonds are another enticing possibility. Canada recently discovered the gems in its northern reaches, turning the nation into a bigger diamond producer than South Africa. The same rocks lining Canada's pockets also extend into Wyoming.

Diamonds are produced in kimberlite pipes that are usually round at the surface.

"You look for circular features, but shoot," Surdam said, "there are hundreds of those in Wyoming. The question is which are kimberlite."

The Geological Survey could provide assistance by testing rocks to discover which are kimberlite, and which kimberlites likely have diamonds.

Eager prospectors already have started digging near the Colorado-Wyoming border, Surdam said.

And there are other potential mineral commodities that could get the same treatment -- copper, gold, and the gemstones iolite and pyrope.

New veins are still being discovered, Surdam said, because Wyoming wasn't traditionally known as a mineral-rich province.

"It hasn't been given the kind of careful perusal Colorado has been given," he said.

The coal industry needs nurturing in order to maximize production, Surdam said. Wyoming is the nation's leading exporter of coal, but coal traveling east faces a bottleneck. Only two rail lines pass in that direction, and the new state geologist said we need either a third rail line or a new transmission line for power made from the coal.

But a transmission line is costly too; up to 50 percent of the energy is lost in electricity sent through power lines over long distances. "The problem is the grid's just not constructed to get electricity from Wyoming to Atlanta," Surdam said.

The state's geologic hazards also need attention and planning, from earthquakes and landslides to flooding and fires.

Jackson Lake Dam in northwest Wyoming is a prime example. Built near the Teton fault, the dam could collapse during an earthquake and inundate several cities, including Jackson Hole.

Surdam is in a unique position to accomplish all this, say those who know him best. A professor for 32 years at the University of Wyoming, he followed that with a six-year stint as a consultant for the oil and gas industry.

"He brings something to that job that, in a sense, is new. He has some very deep connections and understandings of the problems of the mineral business, having been involved in it personally," said John Wold, chairman of Wold Minerals Company. "I think we are particularly fortunate as I look at the credentials of state geologists across this country. It's very seldom you get someone with the credentials Ron Surdam has. Plus he's a very nice guy."

Yet Surdam also served on the state's Environmental Quality Council for eight years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Steve Jones, watershed protection attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, an environmental group, said he thinks Surdam brings an interesting perspective to the job.

"I think his environmental background will serve him well," Jones said.

"His willingness to look at new and different approaches will be a good thing for the state."

Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who appointed Surdam, said he will be an activist state geologist who will help the state make the most of its resources.

"I frankly am delighted he's willing to come to work for what I pay," he said. "He's at a point in his life where he's had both careers in academia and private industry and is (still) interested in public service, and I'm thankful for that."

Surdam's interests have long been Wyoming geology, and he's sampled nearly all of its 31 flavors: metamorphic rocks, sedimentary rocks, porous rocks called zeolites, geologic hazards, sandstone formation, reactions that generate oil and gas, and gas flow in basins. He's studied ways to find the "sweet spots" natural gas collects in and planned the best way to get it out of the ground.

When the last state geologist announced he was stepping down, the governor, who'd known Surdam for years, asked him to be the interim state geologist.

"After I worked here a while and saw the potential to do some things I always wanted to do, I told the governor I was interested (in staying)," said Surdam.

A key issue with the Geological Survey, Surdam said, was that the state has very dynamic natural resources, as prices for commodities rise and fall, but the Geological Survey has remained very static.

The last new staff positions were added in 1981, and the Geological Survey has had a flat budget in 1980 dollars since then.

In order to revitalize the Survey and achieve his vision, Surdam has requested nine new staff positions, including three senior scientific positions in geohydrology, seismic geophysics and geological process modeling.

"These are sort of glaring omissions with respect to the survey," he said.

Surdam also wants to reorganize the Survey to form multidisciplinary teams to tackle challenges, replacing the compartmentalized Survey of years past.

It doesn't take large numbers to solve complex problems, Surdam said, just a small number of people from diverse backgrounds.

"With work and a little vision, I think we'll surprise a lot of people with how productive we can be."

Though he understands this cannot come without an environmental cost, Surdam is cognizant of environmental concerns and hopes that natural resource development in Wyoming will be "reasoned." Certain special areas, like the Tetons, will be off limits to natural resource development, Surdam said, and he also may help set up funds to restore land decades from now once its resource is depleted.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News