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Educating with Purpose

After using cutting edge geologic concepts to find a major oil field in southwest Wyoming, Dr. Robert Weimer has spent the last 51 years at Colorado School of Mines educating others in the use of applied science.
This article appeared in Vol. 5, No. 6 - 2008

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Getting Started

Now retired from Colorado School of Mines (CSM), Dr. Robert Weimer is far from ‘hanging up the old rock hammer'. He still leads field trips, publishes articles, and maintains an active roll in the education of students, geoscientists, policy makers, business people, and the general public. From 1949 to 1954, Bob served as an exploration geologist for Union Oil of California where he worked the Rocky Mountains and Permian Basin.  

"I learned the fundamentals of petroleum exploration while at Union Oil," says Bob. "I became familiar with the tools of the time (sample and geophysical logs, surface and subsurface mapping, reflection seismic) to locate, lease, and drill a trap hoping it contained hydrocarbons. Having new ideas tested by my associates, and eventually by drilling, was a challenge that influenced me throughout my career."  

However, before starting his career as a geologist with Union, Bob's interests were in engineering. He grew up in Glendo, Wyoming and graduated from a high school class of just 14 students. Bob then joined the U. S. Navy Air Corps and was later transferred to an engineering officer program. After serving nearly 3 years, he went on to attend the University of Wyoming, starting out in mechanical engineering.  

After some coaxing from family and friends and talking to the Department of Geology at the University of Wyoming, the pull of the outdoor life made Bob reconsider careers. He received his MA in geology in 1949 and went on to Stanford to get a PhD in geology.  

In the late 1940's during his PhD studies, he was influenced by the work of Professor Laurence Sloss and his coworkers at Northwestern University who were using principles of sequence stratigraphy in the area around Dillon, Montana. They recognized the importance and meaning of unconformity-bounded units with respect to studying the rock units of an area. The actual concepts of sequence stratigraphy developed by Peter Vail, a former student of Sloss, and others at Exxon were still years off (published in 1977). Bob was one of the growing number of geologists using the concepts of time-stratigraphy, unconformity-bound surfaces, and global changes in sea level to predict sedimentary trends.

A landmark discovery

Bob leading a field trip in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Photo: Paul Weimer After leaving Union Oil, Bob became a consultant and hooked up with fellow geologist, Chet Cassel. Together they spent three years developing ideas and prospects in the Green River Basin in southwestern Wyoming and other areas where the oil and gas discoveries had been based on structural traps. They knew they were dealing with a shallow Cretaceous seaway where there were shorelines, deltas, and deeper basin deposition. Incorporating some of their pioneering work on shoreline sandstones in the San Juan basin, Bob set out to predict sedimentary trends in the Green River Basin.  

"We were working with sea level changes to develop some of our sedimentary ideas," says Bob. "While we were not necessarily using the same nomenclature that is used today, we were applying much the same concepts used in the sequence stratigraphic analysis. Applying outcrop studies, chronostratigraphic verses lithostratigraphic units, we mapped key trends in the Green River Basin of Wyoming. The reservoir characterization and basin analysis was a big step in developing the play. A sand trend associated with one of the Cretaceous shorelines was mapped and where that crossed a large arch, we leased the mineral rights."  

The drilling started in 1958 and the discovery of the Arch Unit, Patrick Draw field was announced in 1959.  

"This discovery started a wave of exploration in the Rocky Mountains to find additional giant stratigraphic traps in the Upper Cretaceous rocks," says Bob. "At Patrick Draw, porous and permeable barrier bar sandstones pinch out on a structural nose, the Eocene Wamsutter arch. The failure to find more similar fields in the Rockies points to factors not generally considered at the time of the discovery and may have had a dominant influence on the accumulation. Only by examining the geologic history of the area, beginning with the deposition of the reservoir and source rocks, and studying the structural attitude of these rocks through time, can we understand why the accumulation formed here and not in other locations."  

"Our work challenged existing ideas as to how formations were formed," says Bob.

Back to Educating

Before the discovery was even announced, Bob was already back teaching at CSM.  

"This discovery and the income I received made teaching much easier," says Bob. "I could devote more resources to educating and research. From my engineering background and my practical experience with the Navy, Union Oil, and being a consultant proved to me that science and research must have direct benefits to addressing problems faced in the real life. CSM was, and still is, a university that teaches applied science and scientific research."  

Bob distinguished himself at CSM becoming the Department Head in 1964, only seven years after becoming a professor. (He was still department head when I attended there as a freshman in geology in the fall of 1968. The areas surrounding Mines is a natural laboratory in geology and the geology program that Dr. Weimer had helped build was certainly an inspiration to anyone attending the school.)  

At that time, CSM had just six departments, all devoted to applied sciences and engineering. They had one of the first Departments of Geophysics and integrated their programs so students could understand the practical concepts of reservoir characterization through modern 3-D and 4-D seismic.  

Essential resources

"Society has three resources at their disposal," says Bob. "We have natural resources that supply the material needed for a technology based society, agricultural resources including marine to supply the food, and finally human resources. Without these there is no creation of wealth and much of the world's population would cease to exist as we know it today."  

"Schools like Mines can supply two of these necessary resources," Bob adds. "We educate our students for professional careers and conduct research in the discovery, production, and beneficence of natural resources. Our work has direct benefit to the industry in the field and to fulfilling the needs of society. We address their problems and seek answers that will make a direct and immediate impact on daily operations."  

Bob also believes education about our resources must come from three areas; teaching-transfer of knowledge to students and professionals; research-advancement of our knowledge base; and service-to the community and government.  

While Bob's commitment to CSM in teaching and research has been exceptional, so is his commitment to educating the public and public officials. He started evening courses in the Denver area and late day courses at Mines in the late 1960s and helped AAPG start and organize continuing education programs; one of the most important programs was the formation of CSM's Energy and Minerals Field Institute Summer Program. The purpose was to bring congressmen and staff, business leaders, and other key people into the field to give them a sense of how science and the energy industry work. This program was geared to educate regulators at all government levels...and the list does not end there.  

"It is important for us to take an active roll in the management of our resources," says Bob. "My work with a local resource committee to ensure a stable supply of water is just one example of how we can contribute. We must also get involved with the education of our young people about natural resources by leading field trips and spreading our knowledge into the primary and secondary schools."  

Post script:

After our interview, I walked outside the geology building with Bob for a couple of photos by the CSM logo. I could tell he was incredibly proud of Mines and its educators. On the way, we stopped at Dr. Steve Sonnenberg's office (Steve is the Boettcher Chair in Petroleum Geology at CSM and a past President of AAPG). Bob gave me Steve's autographed copy of "Rocky Mountains to the World, A History of the Colorado School of Mines" and introduced me to a man that will help carry on the legacy of this school.  

As we parted, I told him that I was next driving north to talk with his son, the Benson Endowed Chair and geology professor at the University of Colorado. As I said "you must be proud of Paul", Bob's eyes lit up and the biggest smile came across his face, "Yes, very, but he is his own man."

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