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NETL Celebrates the 41-Year Career of a Talented Engineer and Caring Colleague
Gary Covatch

Gary Covatch can recall his first day on the job at NETL-Morgantown with vivid clarity.

“My new boss was off sick the day I started,” he said. The individual filling in for the supervisor had not been informed that the recent Pennsylvania State University graduate was reporting for duty. “So it was kind of a shock to that person when I showed up,” Covatch said.

More than 41 years after that awkward moment, Covatch, a petroleum engineer, is preparing to retire and wrap up a prolific career at NETL that began when Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office.

It has been a remarkable run. Covatch has served as a versatile member of the NETL team and used his wealth of experience to assist colleagues on a variety of projects and make contributions that have reduced the environmental footprint of energy production while ensuring reliable supplies of affordable energy for the American people.

As he prepares to leave the Lab at the end of March, Covatch explained that he is proud of the significant body of work he has completed, including efforts that have advanced horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies for the oil and gas sector.

“Those innovations launched the shale gas boom, which brought jobs to this region and others, and enabled producers to extract resources from multiple gas reservoirs with a single well,” said Covatch, noting the technology will also supply natural gas for the production of hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel.

A native of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Covatch played a pivotal role in the development of the Stripper Well Consortium, a partnership that included NETL, Penn State, domestic oil and gas producers, industry associations and others.

A stripper well is a type of well that produces relatively small amounts of oil or gas. They are called “stripper” wells because they strip the remaining oil or gas from a reservoir field. The consortium was designed to enhance the ability of the domestic production industry to keep stripper wells producing at economic production rates in an environmentally safe manner.

The lessons learned and research findings from the consortium and other work have been valuable as Covatch assists with efforts to reduce methane emissions from marginal conventional wells (MCWs).

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced plans to award a total of $350 million to 14 states to address methane emissions from MCWs by providing financial assistance to operators/well owners to voluntarily and permanently plug and abandon MCWs.

Oil and natural gas wells are a prominent source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” Covatch said. “In fact, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it’s crucial that we work closely with states, industry and property owners to develop solutions.”

As part of an historic agreement with the EPA, NETL is leveraging its core competencies, capabilities, resources and expertise to quantify and reduce methane emissions from inefficient and leaking oil and gas operations.

NETL’s Rick Baker, supervisor, Advanced Remediation & Methane Mitigation Technologies, said NETL engineers, including Covatch, are working closely with state agencies to develop programs to mitigate methane emissions from MCWs.

“Gary provides critical guidance. For instance, he has shed light on the fact that some MCWs are the sole energy source available to heat a nearby home or farm, which is important to understand as we move forward,” Baker said.

He noted that Covatch’s long tenure at NETL has included stints in laboratory operations, in-house research and project management. “Gary has seen the evolution of NETL over a period of four decades. He has always been willing to share his expertise and tremendous level of experience to help in any way he can,” Baker said.

Covatch is also well-known as a caring colleague. The candy bowl on his desk is kept filled with treats to share. He has been a frequent contributor to the Voluntary Leave Transfer Program, which permits federal employees to donate annual leave directly to another federal employee who is experiencing a personal or family emergency and has exhausted his or her available paid leave.        

“I will miss him tremendously as a colleague who has helped me and so many others professionally. But I will miss him enormously as a friend,” said Baker, who has worked with Covatch for 20 years.

A resident of Morgantown, Covatch has played in community softball leagues for more than 40 years. In retirement, he plans to relocate to Punxsutawney. He also plans to retire from softball to spend more time with his four granddaughters.

NETL is DOE national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.