The University of Wyoming, 15 years ago, was hardly as it is today. Philip Dubois was a year into his job as UW's president. The Cowgirl women's basketball team had never qualified for a postseason tournament. The football field at War Memorial Stadium was natural grass.
The new, technologically advanced buildings that now freckle campus existed only in dreams. The School of Energy Resources (SER) wasn't yet a dream. "In the mid-90s, there was not a visionary sense of excitement for UW's future. Clearly, UW was a good, solid school with great tradition," recalls Ben Blalock, the affable president of the UW Foundation. "But, there were concerns regarding significant budget cuts and, as a result, no one was being encouraged to advance big ideas."
The budget cuts never came. What did, instead, was a partnership with Encana Corporation that has not only changed the face of corporate fundraising for the university, but moved UW from behind the shadows of the Rocky Mountains into the forefront of energy and petroleum education in the United States.
Since 2006, Encana has gifted $7 million to the university — matched by the state for a total of $14 million — to enhance energy-related educational opportunities, particularly in the Department of Petroleum Engineering, which, 15 years ago, was closed amid a declining oil industry and a lack of enrollment.
The oil and gas giant's financial support already has led to the opening of two laboratories in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, with a third lab in the works. Encana's pledge also includes the largest private donation toward construction of the Energy Resources Center, a state-of-the-art research and collaboration facility that will help the SER and its various centers of excellence realize their full potential. Construction began this spring; completion is expected in summer 2012.
"The petroleum engineering program would not be where it is now without Encana's investment in our state-of-the-art research facilities," says Rob Ettema, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. "We really wouldn't have much more than a petroleum engineering program in name only.
"Encana is a wonderful and engaged supporter of the university, and that support has allowed us to move in the direction we need to go. I would hate to think what we would look like without their support."
None of it — not the money, not the labs, not the partnership — might have happened if Encana hadn't ended up with major interest in the Jonah Field, one of the nation's largest natural gas fields, located in Sublette County near Pinedale.
A predecessor to Encana, Alberta Energy Company bought an estimated 1.2 trillion cubic feet of reserves, for about $630 million, in June 2000 from Wyoming-based McMurry Oil Company. Within six months, Alberta Energy had more than doubled initial flow rates from the wells, a success that helped launch another energy boom in the Cowboy State that continues today.
Alberta Energy merged with PanCanadian Petroleum in April 2002 to form Encana. By then, the company's prosperity at Jonah had drawn the attention of UW administrators — led by President Tom Buchanan working in partnership with then-Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and the Wyoming State Legislature — all of whom, says Blalock, were now dreaming about the creation of a school dedicated to positioning Wyoming's university as a national leader in energy research and teaching.
"We said, 'Who can we turn to on the corporate side who would truly be partners with this university in the field of energy?' And the very first one we turned to was Encana," Blalock says. "We flew up to Calgary — Gov. Freudenthal, with Al Simpson, with Tom Buchanan, with Mick McMurry — to talk to Randy Eresman about how Encana could become more engaged as the lead corporate donor for energy programs at the University of Wyoming.
"Wyoming is not the corporate headquarters for the major energy companies working in Wyoming. Companies, such as Encana, have remarkable investments in Wyoming, but their headquarters are elsewhere. With the School of Energy Resources, we were making a stated commitment to the energy industry that we are eager to partner with you, that we are eager to develop the science that you look for in recruits and that we are eager to make sure our students are well trained for your industry. And we were asking Encana to be a poster child for UW's commitment to corporate partnerships."
It was easy to build a case for UW with Encana. Eresman — the company's president and chief executive officer since 2006 — is a UW graduate. Encana's hierarchy, in fact, is crowded with UW graduates, including Eric Marsh, an executive vice president and senior vice president of the USA Division, and Mike Graham, another executive vice president and president of the Canadian Division. In all, Encana boasts nearly 50 employees who have studied at UW.
"I do remember that initial meeting, with Gov. Freudenthal, Mick McMurry, Ben Blalock, and others," Eresman says, "but I never could have envisioned how grand the partnership would be today."
Says Blalock, "I look back and just think how fortunate we were that Encana became UW's first major energy corporate partner, with all the senior executives who are graduates of the University of Wyoming. It was the genesis and restoration and resurgence of the Jonah Field that truly created why we are sitting here today with smiles on our faces."
The folks at Encana are smiling, too.
While UW gains from advances in technology and facilities on campus, Encana benefits from the opportunity to work with the university on developing programs that will aid the industry and help to produce the best possible petroleum engineers. The goal, of course, is to continue to replenish Encana's ranks with UW graduates. Marsh ('82, petroleum engineering) touts UW's "practical sense approach" to education, which he says reflects on the leadership of the university.
"My degree from the University of Wyoming represented a very good balance between the technical advancements that were occurring at the time and the typical academic concepts that we have to learn as an engineer," says Marsh, whose youngest daughter, Rachel, also graduated from UW. "It was about the right balance. When I got out, I hit the ground being ready to do the things you need to do, whether it be in the field or in the office. Within six months, I was performing economics on drilling wells. Within another nine months, I was out physically drilling and completing wells. All I had to fall back on then was my education."
That's been more than enough for Marsh, who has ascended to the brain trust of one of North America's largest producers of oil and gas. He is the second-highest ranking Encana executive in the U.S.
In Canada, meanwhile, Graham ('86, petroleum engineering) oversees some 2,200 employees and about 45 percent of all Encana's production. "We owe a lot of our success to the University of Wyoming, and anything we at Encana can do, we're willing to take a look and see how we can help," he says. "It's a great relationship and we want that relationship to continue for many years to come."
While Eresman ('84, petroleum engineering) says Encana takes "tremendous pride" in its partnership with his alma mater, he stresses that the partnership doesn't exist simply because he and others in the company graduated from UW. "We didn't seek out Mike Graham and Eric Marsh because of their connections to the University of Wyoming," Eresman says. "We sought out the most talented people for the roles we needed to fill, and it just happened that those people were graduates of the University of Wyoming."
He adds, "I'm very, very thankful to the University of Wyoming for what it has done for me in my career, for my family, and for my corporation. We're just thrilled to continue the relationship."
Thanks to Encana's financial support, UW graduates will be more than prepared to follow in the footsteps of Eresman, Marsh, and others.
Facilities in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, like the Three-Phase Flow Laboratory, a world-class research facility designed to identify flow characteristics of oil, gas, and water in rock cores under reservoir conditions, and the Reservoir Simulation Laboratory, which allows for the teaching of cutting-edge courses on gas and oil reservoir behavior and drilling and production, are among the finest in the country.
The Three-Phase Flow Laboratory, which serves as headquarters for Mohammad Piri, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and his graduate student research team, is "not one-of-a-kind but it's one of very few in the world," SER Director Mark Northam says.
"They're actually able to image fluids flowing through a core and then do extremely detailed analysis and modeling of how fluids flow through rocks, which is a really important part of simulating oil and gas recovery and carbon dioxide injection and many of the things that are going to be important to Wyoming's future," Northam says. "Without Encana's gift, it might have been five years or more that Mohammad would have been raising money to develop a facility like that.
"It's given one of our bright young faculty a real boost and provided the graduate students working on his research team an experience they can't get anywhere else."
The Reservoir Simulation Laboratory, also termed the Integrated Simulation Data Center, because it replicates features of data centers operated by leading oil and gas companies, is similarly impressive. Extensively developed by Vladimir Alvarado, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, the facility enables engineering and geology students to work with software and methods commonly used for actual reservoir production.
The Energy Resources Center, meanwhile, will assist the SER in its mission to ensure Wyoming becomes a global leader in building a secure and sustainable energy future.
"These facilities will help the young people get a degree that's going to be more applicable. In our industry, a lot has changed in the last four to five years. The advancement of horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing and the ability to now get natural gas from formations that we used to not produce economically from has changed our industry," Marsh says.
"We have to re-think petroleum engineering today. You have to have a university that stays in touch with what's going on with the industry, and that connection back to Wyoming allows us to have communication to express to them, 'This is what we need from your young people.' That communication back to the university is a real strategic advantage to Wyoming, because the people we have at Encana want to help Wyoming become that leading petroleum engineering school."
Northam echoes Marsh.
"The money is nice, obviously, because it has created capabilities on campus that we didn't have before," he says. "But it's the partnership with their people that provides impetus for our research, for our academics and for our outreach programs."
The University of Wyoming — whether it's the administration, the landscape of campus or the athletic department and its facilities — has changed a lot over the past 15 years.
The revitalization of the university's petroleum engineering program, bolstered by Encana's generous support, is undoubtedly one of the most impactful changes.
UW's decision to cut the undergraduate program in 1996, at a time when demand for petroleum engineers was ramping up, was what Northam calls a "major blow" to the university's reputation among industry officials. "When we cut petroleum engineering, we sort of fell off the cliff," he says.
Though UW continued graduate education and research activities in petroleum engineering, Ettema says the university didn't truly begin to recover until Encana stepped forward in 2006, the same year the undergraduate program was reborn, with $2 million to fund the three College of Engineering and Applied Science labs.
"These facilities," he says, "really put our program, visibly, back on the map."
By coupling upgrades to its facilities and technology with world-class faculty, UW is poised to reclaim its spot as one of the nation's top schools for petroleum engineering. The undergraduate program has already achieved accreditation and enrollment has grown from but a handful of students to about 100.
That all seemed impossible 15 years ago.
Today, thanks to Encana, it's reality.
"Our Encana partners truly understand why the University of Wyoming is important. All that Encana is doing for UW is a tribute to the excellence of the university for the products we provide — from the scientific research to our students," Blalock says. "UW takes greatest pride in its partnership with Encana. And that pride is based on so much more than our appreciation for Encana's corporate giving; it is in seeing our own graduates in key positions of leadership in the energy sector. This is a model philanthropy story. It really is, in every way, giving back to the University of Wyoming and the state of Wyoming. It also shows that UW is great at what we do. And we'll only be better in the future thanks to Encana."