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Energy development summit begins, showcases Utah geology

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 6:06 p.m. MST

Tom Dempster looks over some samples prior to photographing them at the Utah Geological Survey's Utah Core Research Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. The center was established in 1951 and now occupies a 12,000-square-foot warehouse and contains the region's only publicly available and most complete collection of geologic cuttings and core from Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Even Thomas Chidsey happily concedes that dinosaurs steal the show.

He can walk guests of the Utah Geological Survey's Utah Core Research Center past drill-produced samples of layers of rock, or core, that are millions upon millions of years old and tell the stories of the state's unique and diverse geology.

Chidsey can speak to the wonders of rock — he's a geologist, after all — but he also knows that, at some point, people will want a peek inside the room where old dinosaur bones fresh from the ground are painstakingly examined and documented.

"Everybody loves the dinosaurs," Chidsey said, adding he suspects that people attending Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's second annual Energy Development Summit will have the same sentiment if they've signed up for a Friday tour of the research center.

"They're always a big hit," he said.

It is in this room, under bright lights and on dusty tables, where some new species of dinosaurs have ultimately emerged, pulled from the field to reveal that this particular femur, for example, has never been cataloged before, or that this rib encased in plaster of Paris, called a field jacket, is from a mysteriously unknown specimen.

"You open up something new. It is exciting," said paleontologist Don DeBlieux. "Every day is like Christmas."

The dinosaur bones and samples of oil- or gas-laden rock do complement each in other in a natural sort of way, even though Chidsey, petroleum section chief for the Utah Geological Survey, said the belief that old dinosaur remains make oil or gas for today's cars is just that — a belief.

"Sorry to disappoint," he said. "Oil comes from microscopic marine organisms or marine plants. No dinosaurs."

But the bones and the cylindrical samples of core from 900 wells and the cuttings — fine grains of sand from some 4,000 wells — spring from the same rich earth and rocks in Utah, geology so unique that researchers, scientists and industry representatives from both home and abroad want to learn from it.

The center, obscurely tucked away on Redwood Road, is one of five optional energy tours offered as part of Herbert's two-day energy development summit that runs Thursday and Friday and is expected to draw more than 1,200 attendees.

In addition to breakout sessions on two dozen topics, the summit includes a Thursday keynote panel in which members of Utah's congressional delegation will respond to a series of submitted questions on energy policy and challenges.

A morning session focuses on the controversial topic of federal land ownership in Utah, with participants that include Juan Palma, director of the Utah state office of the Bureau of Land Management; Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; and Ashley Korenblat, chief executive officer of a Moab-based outdoor bicycling business and former president of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

The summit includes more than 100 energy industry exhibits and discussions that look at geothermal exploration in Utah, the policy and environmental implications of nuclear power development in the state, and electrical transmission in the West.

While some conference topics include Utah's development of renewable energy and pathways to energy efficiency for businesses, others feature discussions on oil shale and oil sands, plus "responsible energy development."

A rally organized by number of activist groups urging a "clean energy future for Utah," will be held Thursday afternoon outside the Salt Palace Convention Center, where the two-day summit is being held.

As groups rally and summit participants glean new information on the energy front, Chidsey and Tom Dempster, the research center's assistant curator, will be back among their core samples, cuttings and warehouse of research getting ready for guests.

They're used to entertaining.

Every October, they host about 800 fourth-graders from across the state who visit as part of Earth Science Week.

The two men, who enthusiastically announce they love their jobs and most likely will have to be carted out some day as old specimens themselves, help guide children's fingers across the smooth and glistening surface of polished oil shale samples and show core samples drilled and donated by industry.

One company gave 500 feet of core to the center and about $100,000 worth of analysis.

Sharing is what the center's mission is all about, even if it comes with a bit of nudging.

"Cores are expensive to acquire, the result of a lot of research, time and effort," Chidsey said. "We ask for them; we are not proud."

There is no law that compels any company to share the results of their efforts from drilling in Utah's ground, but Chidsey's crew expects there are more than 40 miles of core in the warehouse, which also features thousands of separate, marked envelopes with samples of cuttings that tell stories of geologic timelines. In 2011, center staff examined more than 3,000 boxes of core and cuttings.

Last year, more than two dozen workshops were hosted at the center — Dempster said it was easily their busiest year — with Utah's geology providing critical information for doctoral students, other researchers and geologists from as far away as Jakarta, Indonesia, and Brazil.

All the research, cuttings and core obtained by the center become part of the public domain, furthering the understanding of geologic formations, resource-producing landscapes and mineral deposits. Chidsey and the crew do their own analysis, presenting their findings at national and global conferences.

Walking past another display, Chidsey said it is easy to get excited about geology, given where he lives. While the center may act as a repository and research center, he says the state of Utah is a wondrous classroom with its resource rich, geologic formations that speak to all manners of ancient environments.

In Sevier County, the Covenant Field reaps oil from a 176 million-year-old landscape that is much like the Sahara Desert with its Navajo Sandstone.

Utah's largest producing natural gas field, Natural Buttes, is out by Vernal, deep in ancient sand bars and river deposits.

In San Juan County, Chidsey said the Greater Aneth oil field sits where there was once a warm shallow sea, much like the Bahamas.

Utah's coal can be found in swamp land from 70 million years ago, while oil shale is in area formerly covered by fresh water.

"We literally have everything, which is why everybody is so interested," Chidsey said. "Utah is really unique."

And, as such, the crew at the center is never, ever bored.

"I wake up and can't wait to get to work," Dempster said.

* * *

The Utah Governor's Energy Development Summit is Thursday and Friday at the Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple. Roughly 1,200 people have registered to attend the event, but there are still about 100 spots available, according to organizers.

The $95 fee at the door covers two meals each day plus an evening reception Thursday. It also includes participation in one of five optional energy tours Friday afternoon.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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