John Mork, chairman of the USC board of trustees, was driven to build the best energy company in the United States. By outworking and outthinking the competition, he and his wife, Julie, have succeeded in creating Energy Corporation of America (ECA), one of the nation’s largest privately held oil and gas companies. Mork, who earned his bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering in 1970 and his master’s in 2012, is one of the most stalwart Trojans found anywhere. In 2005, he and Julie made a generous gift to name the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. Five years later, they made an even larger contribution to undergraduate scholarships. Senior writer Marc Ballon spoke to the Morks about their dedication to giving back.
Why exactly did you decide to make your $15 million gift to USC Viterbi a decade ago?
John: We were driven by then Dean Max Nikias’ vision to make Viterbi the best. At that time, only a third of students admitted to Viterbi were graduating from Viterbi. A third transferred to other schools like Marshall, but a third were entirely lost. Max said, “We want to change this. We want all those kids to graduate from Viterbi.” Today, 92 percent of them do. It’s an incredible difference.
Julie: My answer would be Max Nikias because of his drive, personality and passion.
Do you think it’s been a good investment?
John: I think it’s been a fabulous investment. If you look at the students and the graduates, the kids that come out of here are incredible. They will do far greater things in the future than we or anyone else has accomplished to date.
ECA was one of the first energy companies to drill horizontal wells. How do you think that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil has transformed the American economy?
John: It’s changed the world. When I was at Viterbi, they taught us that shale was the barrier that kept oil or gas in the good rocks. You actually tried to avoid it. We knew shale was the source rock too, that it had lots of oil and gas in it, but that you couldn’t get it out. Now we can. Shale is about 10 to 20 times more prevalent than the old reservoir rocks.
What are the implications of increased horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing?
John: It’s going to be the 1950s again. We’re going to build manufacturing jobs, great jobs — a lot more engineering and good white-collar and blue-collar jobs. I’m not talking about burger flippers. How? Companies want to manufacture where the cheapest energy exists, and that is now America. Developing world countries export commodities. First-world countries import factories. We’ll be building factories. We want to export around the world, but we want to send them flat-screen TVs, not oil or coal.
What are the biggest misconceptions about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing?
John: Whenever you say the words, “Never in the history of mankind,” you’ve got to follow that with something big. Okay. Never in the history of mankind has any resource been developed with less impact on the environment than oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing. Let me give you some examples. When you farm an area, say in Nebraska, you impact 100 percent of what you farm. There used to be a lot of trees in Nebraska and Ohio; they’re gone because it’s farmland now. If you select cut for timber, you impact 50 percent of the surrounding area. If you surface mine coal, you impact 300 percent of what you mine because you have to take the dirt off and move it away to mine. When we horizontally drill, we impact about a five-acre spot. We reclaim it to one acre in a year, and we drain 600 to 800 acres for oil and gas. So we are impacting 1 percent or less of what we harvest.
What do you see as the next energy breakthrough?
John: I think it’s impossible to forecast breakthroughs. No one forecasted what’s going on with shale 10 years ago. I think if I were betting, I’m guessing it would be in the areas of energy conservation and energy storage, for instance, new ways of storing electricity. What I mean by energy conservation is higher mileage in your car, more efficient air conditioning and heating, among others.
Why hasn’t alternative energy taken off in the United States?
John: I believe that alternative energy for power generation has an exceptional competitor in unconventional (shale) natural gas. Both types of energy started to develop at about the same time, but natural gas from shale has progressed much faster and is far less expensive to use for electric generation than renewables. Shale drilling is a huge technological breakthrough. I am certain that when we look back at the first quarter-century of this millennium, we will find that shale development was the greatest energy innovation. Natural gas is a grand competitor and will force all forms of power to be more cost competitive. The big winner will be the United States and its citizens.
Do you think that energy producers will ever be able to extract the energy beneath California’s Monterey Shale formation?
John: Absolutely. We haven’t got the exact formula for the Monterey yet, but the industry will get there. And there’s so much oil in this vast shale.
How do you feel USC Viterbi prepared you for your career success?
John: I got a great education at Viterbi, but there was something else here: competition. Incredible competition. There was academic competition, social competition, athletic competition — all that. The competition was so great that when you got out into the business world you thought, “Wow, this is easy.” When you graduate from ’SC, you’re ready for the world.
Why are you and your family so committed to USC?
Julie: We are committed to excellence.
John: It’s a joy to be a tiny part of an enterprise doing so much for its students, alumni and the world.