Energy Museum Helps Kids Get Dirt on Petroleum Science

Energy Museum Helps Kids Get Dirt on Petroleum Science

Jim Westgate, professor of Earth and Space Sciences at Lamar University, views petroleum exploration as the science of prehistoric life forms.

“Fossils tell time for geologists and are important for understanding the big picture of any oil prone region,” he said. “Basically a lot of oil exploration involves knowing the age of rocks being drilled through. Fossils help indicate the age of different layers and indicate whether the well has gone as deep as the exploration geologists had wanted it to, or whether the well has gone too far and you’ve passed through the target zone.”

The Texas Energy Museum will host its annual Dinosaur Day on Saturday. The event will feature demonstrations on how paleontologists remove fossils from the ground, as well a number of hands-on activities such as casting fossilized shells and painting papier-mãƒÂ¢che dinosaurs. Westgate and museum director Ryan Smith also hope children get a bit of an education in how oil is formed.

“We kind of joke — remember the old Sinclair dinosaur? We use the dinosaur as a pre-historic symbol of oil,” Smith said. “But, most petroleum geologists agree that it wasn’t dinosaurs or large animals that formed oil. Most scientists agree that most oil was actually formed by smaller plants and animals that lived primarily in oceans. That’s why you find a lot of oil in limestone reefs, sandstone, in deltas, things associated with ocean formation.”

Westgate, who along with fellow Lamar professor Jeff Pittman will help put together the demonstrations, said the process of oil formation is complex, but requires a few basic conditions.

“Any organic debris that accumulates in sediments could potentially turn into oil and natural gas,” he said. “One critical thing is that it needs is to be buried in the sediments so it doesn’t become oxidized.

“And then it gets heated up enough so it’s converted into crude oil or natural gas. So there’s the preservation burial component and then also a cooking component. Then it needs to have a rock that it will migrate to and be stored in, so it doesn’t leak off into the ocean.”

The professor has led a number of fossil digs in Mexico and South Texas and has spent about 20 years exploring a coastal marine deposit at Casa Blanca State Park in Laredo

“Sometimes we bring out binocular microscopes so students can see what the microscopic fossils look like, but I have to see how many volunteers we have from Lamar before we make that decision,” he said. “But, we’ll be bringing out some dinosaur bones from Chihuahua (Mexico) that are about 70 million years old. And we’ll have a student preparing bones, removing sediment.”

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