By Informatics @ EGI in News
January 20th, 2021
On January 1, 2021, EGI bid farewell to long-time EGI Director Dr. Raymond Levey. Ray retired from EGI after 23 years with the Institute, first as Associate Director for two years, then as the second Director of the Energy & Geoscience Institute. He continues to support EGI and the University of Utah through his Research Professor faculty appointment in the College of Engineering.
In an end-of-year conversation in December, we sat down virtually for a conversation and look back at his time at EGI and thoughts for the future in an evolving energy industry and global economic and environmental milieu.
Ray started at EGI in 1997 when he was recruited by the the University of Utah while serving as the Associate Director for International Programs at the University of Texas in Austin for the Bureau of Economic Geology which remains the largest State Bureau in the United States.
His first role at EGI starting in 1997 was to establish a new program as the EGI Associate Director for Reservoirs Research. In a short period of time EGI proved it could be successful both for winning major multimillion-dollar government funding contracts as well as obtaining substantial industry funding. In 1999, when the Institute’s first Director (Dr. William Kanes) retired, the University of Utah Central Administration hired an international global search firm to conduct a worldwide search for the next EGI Director. After an extensive list of candidates from across the globe– in industry and government and academia– along with interviews with the EGI staff and the College of Engineering, Ray was selected as the next Director of EGI. “I was ecstatic to be selected for the role,” he said. “I quickly learned this would not be a cake walk as the Institute was over $1Million dollars in debt and we immediately needed a plan to dig our way out of that hole and initiate a new vision.”
Ray guided EGI through a lot of ups and downs in the oil and gas industry during his time as EGI director. Experiencing the broad arc of the cycles inherent to the industry, he has had unique opportunities for perspective on EGI’s legacy and future in a transitioning energy environment.
From the vantage point of 40 years in industry, government, and academia, he’s recognized that conditions have changed tremendously and will continue to do so. EGI, now 49 years in existence, has an incredible legacy in the global energy sector. EGI scientists and affiliate scientists from across the globe have created that legacy. One of our most prestigious former graduates and former EGI employee, Mr. David Curtiss, Executive Director of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), summed up the long-lasting impact EGI has had in the global community when he said, “the degree of separation between EGI and the global community is never more than 2 degrees of separation”. In all David’s global travels when talking to someone in the energy sector they either know EGI directly through our research or through someone that knows EGI and what we do. “That’s quite an impact and legacy,” Ray said.
In terms of the future, we wondered if there is a particular bright spot Ray sees for the energy industry that may seem unexpected?
“Really, the bright spots are many and include new areas that EGI has long focused on in our research, including Carbon Sequestration to reduce the future impact of climate change and alternative sources of clean energy such as geothermal energy.”
EGI research staff have a respected and well-earned reputation for being among the most accomplished experts in their fields– one of the of greatest inspirations Ray takes as he looks back at how far EGI has come. Working with the talented scientific staff at the Institute, recruiting new scientists, and assembling an incredible array of Advisory Board members from Executive posts across the industry globally have been pivotal to EGI’s success and resilience in service to one of the most turbulent, and critical, business industries in the world. That all of them have served so graciously and dedicatedly speaks to the esteem EGI has built under Ray’s two decades of leadership.
When asked what accomplishments he’s been most proud of for EGI, narrowing the list down to something manageable for a newsletter seemed a challenge.
Noting there is much to be proud of, Ray emphasized that EGI has achieved a level of corporate support that for several years made EGI the largest industry consortia at any University in the world, with over 70 corporate industry members from more than 20 nations. Building this innovative approach to bringing scientific research to industry has been a cornerstone in Ray’s, and EGI’s, approach. Over the history of the Institute over 160 corporations have been members of EGI.
Attracting what is now the EGI Carbon Research Group (headed by Professor Brian McPherson and his team) to join EGI and the University of Utah from the New Mexico Institute of Technology has been a significant accomplishment for EGI. This Group is the scientific lead organization for the Southwest Regional Partnership on Carbon Sequestration (SWP) funded as one of only 7 national partnerships by the Department of Energy in what has been over a $1 billion national research program to study the economic and technical feasibility of capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide (CO2). As part of this effort, EGI in conjunction with the College of Engineering was the first USTAR (Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative) cluster at the University of Utah and the first one of the clusters in the energy sector.
In the last decade, the EGI Geothermal Program with exceptional scientists (like Dr. Joe Moore and Professor John McLennan, and several others) proved the Institute is among the best in the world by winning the U.S. Department of Energy Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) award in direct competition with four National Labs to set up a geothermal field laboratory in central Utah. “I’m enormously proud of the Geothermal Program’s accomplishments and grateful for the technical support and contributions brought to the table from across EGI in winning this competitive funding award,” Ray said. The grant, upwards of $200 million, and the largest non-medical award ever to the University of Utah, is planned to run for over a decade.
Ray departs EGI leaving the Institute in the best financial position in its entire 49-year history, with both a robust institute endowment and multi-million-dollar cash reserve (approaching $10 Million dollars) for expansion in the future. Following the advice of the EGI Advisory Board, EGI established this robust reserve (as a rainy-day fund) to support EGI scientists and staff just in case the world abruptly changed (with prophetic foresight indeed). In the 21 years Ray served as the EGI Director, working with, and on behalf of, the amazing staff and scientists, the institute has procured approximately $400 Million dollars of direct and in-kind research funds to the University of Utah. Most recently (October 2020), Ray was selected as a 2020 recipient of the Utah Energy Pioneer Award, from the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development. “I was honored to receive this award for my efforts at the University of Utah to benefit the citizens of the State of Utah,” he said.
In terms of scientific contributions, no other institute at any University globally has had the worldwide impact of working across three diverse research areas (Fossil Energy, Geothermal Energy, and Carbon Sequestration). EGI has conducted research in over 100 countries during almost a half century, starting with the first global energy crisis in the early 1970’s.
Under Ray’s time as Director, EGI greatly expanded its international stature and reach. Affiliate offices and scientists were positioned in Canada, the U.K., Slovakia, India, and most recently Egypt. Significant targeted growth of EGI in China was a direct result of recruiting Dr. Shu Jiang as head of China Program Development. It is a credit to the leadership shown by Ray and the EGI Advisory Board that staff diversity, which at its peak represented scientists and staff from over 18 nations who spoke 24 languages at EGI, has long been among EGI’s core values.
Challenges, including the inherently cyclical nature of the energy industry, with its sometimes-dramatic highs and lows, have always been part of the terrain. The challenges EGI has faced across Ray’s 21-year tenure as Director have both shaped, and been tackled through, his dedicated leadership.
Ray’s approach to leadership at EGI was founded in several fundamental principles. First, to be a servant leader by recognizing that a Director really works for the scientists. The same is true for the administrative staff. His second primary leadership role is to help make scientists successful in what they want to accomplish. Finally, Ray’s third principle is not to micromanage but to recognize Institute scientists are professionals and the Director’s role is behind the scenes making contacts, building relationships, and finding connections for scientists that can be converted to research opportunities and funding. “This is super critical in a ‘soft money’ institute that must raise our own funding independent of the University.”
During Ray’s years as Director, the University of Utah has had four Presidents and three interim Presidents between these four. During a long part of that time Ray reported directly to former University President and Distinguished Professor David Pershing. It was the period of greatest growth of EGI in all three areas of research and he is grateful for Pershing’s unyielding support for EGI during that time.
The biggest new challenge for institutes like EGI within the University of Utah is finding and proving the sweet spot for the Institute’s role to accomplish major research within the University mission. Successfully supporting EGI research staff also provides a unique bridge for students who are working closely with EGI scientists and come from multiple University departments and colleges to launch their future careers. Ray notes that “it can sometimes be challenging to demonstrate to a University central administration that Institutes with career line faculty and researchers are not in competition with academic departments but rather complement and enhance the greater recognition of the University in the national and global arena.” Examples of this potential for mutual benefit are clear in EGI’s Corporate Associate industry program that grew to the largest program of its kind at any University globally, and in the US Department of Energy supported Utah FORGE program that EGI won for the University of Utah. Utah FORGE is a significant contributor to the University’s overall sustainability goals, and winning this substantial $200 Million DOE grant award would have been far less likely without the EGI infrastructure and independence EGI provided to its scientific staff, as this type of framework is largely unavailable within a single department or college at any university. Having an established Institute provides the framework for winning such competitive projects which benefit the University, the State of Utah, as well as people and communities in Utah and the United States.
What advice does Ray have for and early career professionals in both academic research and the energy industry as a whole, and where can they take inspiration in a really troubling energy landscape? For geoscientists entering the energy field, he says, know that all businesses go through cycles and re-invent themselves. “Just look at the car or computer industry. The world continues to need more and more energy. Early career professionals will always be needed to meet that challenge for society.”
Finally, we asked Ray to share a favorite story or stories from his years as EGI Director. But it sounds like he’s going to leave us hanging. Perhaps retirement is just a segue to a new direction?
“There are so many amazing EGI stories that I look forward to sharing several vignettes in the future about the amazing role of EGI in the global energy sector. As an initial tantalizer comment, I look forward to narrating the story of leading EGI’s return to Libya (after more than 20 years).” This time Ray, as the EGI Director, returned on behalf of the U.S. Department of State in a role to assist in the unwinding of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) program.
EGI heartily congratulates Ray on over two decades of inspired leadership and innovation in helping to shape the industry and the Institute. We wish him well and thank him for his many contributions.
*The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and presented in narrative.