Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

2019 Stelck Chair Murray Gingras delves into the history behind the prestigious appointment.

Beneath our feet: The origins and history of the C.R. Stelck Chair in Petroleum Geology

Murray Gingras, the 2019 C.R. Stelck Chair in Petroleum Geology, delves into the history behind the prestigious appointment.

Charlie Stelck

The Charles R. Stelck Chair in Petroleum Geology was established in 2003 to recognize the commitment and contributions of the University of Alberta towards the discovery and development of oil and gas reservoirs in western Canada.

The chair was named for Charlie Stelck, a brilliant UAlberta geologist who was raised in Edmonton and earned his BSc in Geology on campus in 1937. Following his BSc, Stelck went to work for Imperial Oil with the intention that he would later go on to do a doctorate. With Imperial, Stelck worked on the Canol Project—an effort to understand the geology of the important petroleum discoveries at the town of Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories. This work was foundational to Alberta’s oil boom following the 1947 Leduc oil discovery, which came from geological levels that were very similar to the Norman Wells reservoirs.

Ultimately, Stelck chose to go to Stanford University for his PhD program. In 1947, UAlberta asked if he would return and take over the teaching duties of Professor Percival Sidney Warren. And so he returned to the University of Alberta to finish writing his dissertation while teaching a full course load.

Stelck was a professor at UAlberta for 35 years, retiring in 1982. Throughout his career, Stelck trained hundreds of geologists, many of whom went on to work in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. Stelck focused his research on stratigraphy, which is crucial in predicting the distribution and depth of oil and gas deposits deep beneath our feet. Stelck’s legacy is founded on excellence in mentorship and excellence of research.

Lasting legacy

The first Stelck Chair in Petroleum Geology was Brian Jones, who is presently a Distinguished University Professor at UAlberta and has received many other recognitions. Jones’ research encompasses sedimentary rocks broadly known as carbonates—for example, limestone and dolomite—and his efforts to understand the physical and chemical changes in these rocks as they are buried has been critical to our understanding of important carbonate reservoirs in Alberta’s subsurface, again such as the Leduc discovery.

Brian’s legacy, though not yet complete, includes outstanding graduate students who have gone into academe and industry all around the world. Professor Jones is very well known for his work on high-latitude carbonates, modern and ancient studies of carbonates at Grand Cayman, the carbonate-rich Devonian systems of Alberta and the mineralogy and geobiology of hot springs. Moreover, Jones has trained hundreds and perhaps thousands of undergraduate students since joining the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 1977—more than four decades of service to the university and the province.

Professor S. George Pemberton, the second Stelck Chair, came to the Alberta Research Council in 1981 before becoming an associate professor of stratigraphy at UAlberta as Charlie Stelck’s replacement. Pemberton would go on to hold a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Petroleum Geology before also being elevated to the title of Distinguished University Professor.

Pemberton assumed the C.R. Stelck Chair in Petroleum Geology in 2013—and literally invented a field of sedimentary geology now referred to as applied ichnology. His research relating the integration of trace fossils and the sedimentological record led to a revolution in the oil and gas industry. Using Pemberton’s approach, petroleum producers could better understand and predict where to explore for oil and gas. It is fair to say that today, Pemberton’s techniques are applied at every major oil and gas producing company in the world.

During his time as a professor, Pemberton made significant contributions to the research landscape of sedimentary geology through his supervision of countless undergraduate honours theses. Unfortunately, Pemberton passed away in 2018, while still actively teaching and researching at UAlberta. He is sorely missed.

The Jedi

I am the present Stelck Chair, lifting the torch from George Pemberton. The honour is poignant and difficult to describe. I was mentored by Charlie Stelck and the first two Stelck chairs—Jones was my undergraduate teacher in carbonate sedimentology back in the early ‘90s. I remember him as an energetic, demanding, accomplished, and excellent teacher. He challenged students to look critically at ideas and interpretations whilst carefully nurturing the students’ abilities to present and defend their own ideas.

Professor Stelck was on my PhD supervisory committee. Working with Stelck was a blast. He was about 80 when he joined my committee, and he would create relevant metaphors for life and academia out of almost anything—just ask me about ravioli and work ethic sometime. Charlie was the most intellectual geologist I have ever met, and I suspect that will remain unchanged.

Pemberton… well, George was my PhD supervisor. It is difficult for people who have not completed a graduate degree to understand what a profound statement that is. George inspired my career as a geologist in every way possible. He was a great teacher, mentor and scientist. We called him “the Jedi.”

The tradition of research aimed at petroleum geology in Canada carries on through the legacy of these educators and researchers—and it is now, in part, my responsibility to carry on that legacy. They’re big shoes to fill, certainly—but having learned at the feet of Charlie Stelck and the first two Stelck Chairs seems like an ideal start.