“It suggests that someone somewhere is reading my work.”
That’s John C. Lorenz this year’s winner of the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, not being entirely serious about why he is receiving the highest award from AAPG, given in recognition of distinguished and outstanding contributions to or achievements in petroleum geology.
Truthfully, though, more than just a few have read Lorenz’s work. More importantly, more than just a few have been affected by it.
Lorenz has touched all the bases, both internally and externally, in the industry and has been both a teacher, consultant and from 2001 to ‘04, the AAPG elected editor and then AAPG president from in 2009-10.
He is also the author, along with Scott Cooper, of “The Atlas of Natural and Induced Fractures in Core” and “Applied Concepts in Fractured Reservoirs.”
The two works, along with much of his work – which includes 60 peer-reviewed papers – are now invaluable tools for geologists in the pursuit to recognize and differentiate the many types of natural fractures, induced fractures and artifacts found in cores.
But it is those two larger works which have had the greatest impact.
“It’s gratifying to know that the volumes are being used and appreciated,” he said.
Going Deep with Fractures
Through his career, he has made a habit of finding opportunities from setbacks.
“In 1977 I resigned from a job that was so bad it drove me back to school for a PhD,” which he received in 1981 from Princeton University for his work in the Nubian Sandstone in Libya and Cretaceous strata in Montana.
Lorenz said he entered the field of natural fractures as a matter of necessity.
“The structural geologist for the project I was working on,” he said of those earlier days, “left to teach college, and as the emergency backup geologist, I was suddenly responsible for understanding the characteristics and effects of the hundreds of fractures we were pulling up in 4,000 feet of core.”
It opened up a brand-new world for him.
“Working with the project’s petroleum engineers educated me on the practical aspects of the scientific understandings we were gaining: fractures were not only fascinating cracks, they were also important permeability pathways,” he related.
Lorenz learned as much as he could about fractures – and there was much he had to learn.
“I had some catching up to do,” he said.
Lorenz continued with that area of study because, he said, “less was known about fractures than about the crossbedding I had been measuring.”
He recalls that writing those two books back-to-back was as exhausting as it was rewarding, because they were so illuminating.
“The Atlas shares a basic knowledge of how to correctly recognize different fracture types from the incomplete evidence found in core, and hopefully the book broadens a recognition that fractures are so much more than just breaks in the rock,” he said. “Once fracture types have been sorted out, ‘Applied Concepts’ shows what can be done with that knowledge and how to turn a one-dimensional fracture dataset obtained from core into three-dimensional concepts of the in-situ fracture-permeability networks.”
We’ll Always Have Casablanca
There is more to Lorenz, though, than his published works and industry successes.
“Almost any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you they learned more than they ever taught anyone in the host country,” he said.
Back in the early ‘70s, after a double major in geology and in anthropology from Oberlin College in 1972, and before graduate school, Lorenz, along with his wife Liz, joined the Corps. They lived in Casablanca where he taught technical English to students who would become pilots for the state airline, while she taught English as a foreign language to Moroccan high school students.
“We took city buses to work, bargained for furniture and bought daily groceries,” he said.
Geology was always close by, though.
“As we were leaving the Peace Corps, I ran into a group of geologists working in-country with U.S. State Department funds, and I wound up doing two summers of solo fieldwork with a clapped-out BMW motorcycle in the remote Middle Atlas Mountains, while writing a (master’s) thesis on the local Triassic rift basin,” said Lorenz.
He said the need to make everyday decisions and transactions in a different language and to do so in an unfamiliar culture was an eye-opener because it led deeper into the fabric of another country – something a tourist excursion won’t give you.
“It also provided insights into my own cultural background,” he said.
That teaching of pilots, incidentally, was no accident.
“I truly love flying. The low-altitude oblique view of geology, including fractures, from a small airplane is unique, and there is satisfaction in exercising precise control over a demanding machine,” said Lorenz.
But that love of flight was also something he wanted to share.
“As a flight instructor, I enjoy passing that passion and skill on to another generation of pilots. I had one student who went on to fly F-14s from aircraft carriers for the Navy, but he was a natural pilot and learned in spite of, not because of me,” he said.
He said he grew up dreaming of flying.
“I am still amazed to be flying the dream,” he said, even though it nearly killed him in 1995 when he crashed and destroyed an airplane.
“Through dumb outhouse luck I walked away with only learning experience,” Lorenz quipped.
Onward and Upward
Lorenz is aware that geology these days – certainly its perception – is changing, and not always for the better.
“Despite the fact that our industry provides a product that is essential to modern civilization, we have a tremendously negative public image that is so entrenched that it’s difficult now to get out of the hole,” he explained.
It has become almost impossible for anti-industry people to let themselves acknowledge that they use, enjoy and are dependent on hydrocarbons, he added.
“And if we in the industry point that out, we are usually granted neither credibility nor credit, in part because the industry has been inept with its PR efforts,” Lorenz said.
Asked to elaborate, he said, “Well, for glaring ancient history, the handling of PR for of the Exxon Valdez and the Macondo well come to mind. More recently, executives from the majors met with the Biden administration, and if anything positive came out of those meetings, it wasn’t widely advertised.”
There is enough blame to go around.
“Regarding the current high fuel prices, government could and should have been comfortable coming to us and saying: ‘Hey, the country has a problem, how can you help us fix it?’ But instead, they blame us for the problem and demand that we find the solution.”
Industry, too, could do more.
“And we bristle and fight right back. We should be going to government and saying, ‘Hey, the country has a problem, here’s how we can help fix it,’” he explained.
As for the Powers’ Award, Lorenz said, while receiving it was enormously humbling, it is not, he insists, the end of his career – it’s just a glorious marker along the way.
“Ongoing experience with unexpected variations in fracture types, patterns and characteristics keeps me tap dancing, advancing and, hopefully, humble,” Lorenz said.
Of all the people in the industry, all the mentors and colleagues, he said there has always been one constant: “It always comes back to the loving intelligent support, encouragement and latitude I have received from my wife of 51 years, a practical dreamer, someone who has had her own special-ed teaching career, and wild child of the ‘60s,” he said.
This is a man who doesn’t dwell on regrets, but there is one he remembers from his time in Casablanca.
“I never did find Rick’s American Café,” said Lorenz.
But he’s still tap dancing.