Guide to College Majors in Petroleum Engineering

Oil prices have fallen lately. We include this news for the benefit of gas stations, which otherwise wouldn't learn of it for six months.
--Bill Tammeus, in Toronto's National Newspaper, 1991

What is Petroleum Engineering?

If you're interested in earth sciences - and you like the idea of getting paid to travel the world - consider becoming a petroleum engineer. Petroleum engineers seek out oil and gas reservoirs beneath the earth's surface. They develop the safest and most efficient methods of bringing those resources to the surface. And as demands increase for alternative energy, some forward-thinking petroleum engineers are turning their talents to working on clean energy products that produce fewer harmful carbon emissions.

Many petroleum engineers travel the world or live in foreign countries -- wherever their explorations take them to find and recover valuable reserves. These travels can lead to the deserts, high seas, mountains, and frigid regions of the world in order to find untapped sources of energy for the world's population.

The work of petroleum engineers keeps the world running. They help provide the energy to heat our homes, cook our food, and fuel our cars. However, petroleum engineers study more than just combustible material. Manufacturers use petroleum to create more than three hundred everyday products from medicines and cosmetics to plastics and textiles.

Earning an on-campus or online college degree in petroleum engineering does not mean you must earn a living in another country. Plenty of other jobs exist in the profession at home, as well as abroad. Petroleum engineers might oversee drilling sites or work indoors in a laboratory or at a computer. A wide range of career possibilities exists within the profession.

What Do Petroleum Engineers Do?

After locating reservoirs of crude oil and natural gas, petroleum engineers find ways to bring those substances out of the ground for processing. The two primary ways of getting the reserves to the surface are "drilling" and "producing." Drilling creates a tunnel down to the oil and involves creating a system of pipes and valves to bring it up. When producing, petroleum engineers locate reserves that are already under pressure. If they don't erupt on their own, the engineers use their talents to coax the substances above ground.

The petroleum engineer is involved in nearly all phases of the production process, from finding the oil through refining and distributing it. Using skills that are often associated with the earth sciences, petroleum engineers examine a variety of geologic and engineering data to determine the most likely sources of oil. Because many of these locations are in out-of-the-way places, professionals involved in this aspect of petroleum engineering often have to travel extensively, or set up residency in a foreign country for a time.

Once a reserve has been located, the petroleum engineer must determine the quantity and quality of the product to be extracted. Will there be enough of sufficient quality to make the substantial investment in money and labor worth the effort? Even after a company has decided to drill, the petroleum engineer must determine the best and most efficient means of extracting it.

Petroleum engineers examine the recovered oil and gas for quality before separating the different elements. They often find a mixture of oil, gas, water, and other components that must be separated and refined. Petroleum engineers oversee this process. They also design and develop the physical plants necessary for carrying it out these tasks safely and efficiently.

Aside from everyday gasoline, petroleum is also used in jet fuel, diesel fuel, kerosene, propane, and heating oil for homes. Some electricity-generating plants are even fueled by natural gas. Plastic food wraps, car ties, household containers, toys, and other plastics are made from petroleum byproducts. The fibers used in some clothing are also developed from petrochemicals.

Career Education in Petroleum Engineering

Most petroleum engineering degrees exist at the master's level, so a science and engineering background in college is recommended for anyone interested in pursuing a career in petroleum engineering. Your undergraduate curriculum should emphasize math, chemistry, and physics. In addition, classes in language, composition, and economics are recommended. Always remember that you will be working as part of a team, writing reports, and drafting proposals. Therefore, the ability to communicate effectively is an important asset to develop in college.

Petroleum engineering students take basic engineering courses before moving into more specialized classes like geology, well drilling, reservoir fluids, fluid flow, petroleum production, and reservoir analysis. If you choose to earn a BS in petroleum engineering, you might be assigned to an office position for orientation before being sent out for field experience. Some of these entry-level experiences include well-work operations, facilities production, surveillance activities, or even drilling.

Anyone who considers a career in petroleum engineering should be prepared for continual learning. While many classroom-based engineering principles remain the same, technology and methods are always shifting, and the increasing problem of global climate change is inescapably intruding upon the profession, forcing industries to adapt. Professional organizations such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers offer short courses to update skills and to continue your professional development.

Computers play an increasingly important role in this industry. Petroleum engineers should graduate with solid computer skills, and they should stay abreast of software and hardware changes in their field. Petroleum companies own many of the supercomputers currently in use around the world. Personal computers are used for such operations as analyzing data collected during fieldwork and automating oilfield production.

Experienced petroleum engineers can choose to live almost anywhere in the world. Consider the location of the companies with whom you would like to work, where they have headquarters, and where they have oil fields. Many petroleum engineers can be found in California, Texas, Alaska, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Many top graduates receive several offers, so consider your own preferences and the opportunities presented by each company.

Is an Advanced Degree Necessary to Be a Petroleum Engineer?

Although most degree programs specific to petroleum engineering exist at the master's level, petroleum engineering can be quite rewarding even without an advanced degree. A bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering is the most valuable bachelor's degree one can have, a Georgetown University survey found. The poll, based on 2009 U.S. Census data, found that people with only a bachelor's degree earned a median annual salary of $120,000 -- the highest of any collegiate major.

Many new engineers advance rapidly through their companies as they gain on-the-job experience. A graduate with a bachelor's degree can expect to move into a challenging assignment quickly, but petroleum engineers usually seek a master's degree to qualify for positions in technical or managerial areas. Online master's degree programs have become popular among working professionals (especially those in remote locations) who have already mastered hands-on skills and are looking to improve their career prospects. A PhD, from an online or on-campus program, is usually the ticket to a research and/or teaching career for a petroleum engineer with solid professional credentials.

What Can You Do With a Major in Petroleum Engineering?

You might have seen old movies with oil-well gushers splattering the drilling crew, spewing precious barrels of oil on the ground. Though it makes for a great image, the petroleum engineer must assure their employer that this scenario will never happen. Gushers do not surprise drilling crews anymore. Petroleum engineers, using very precise and sophisticated equipment, have foretold where the oil is and how deep the source is.

There are four areas of concern to petroleum engineers:

  • Finding the oil
  • Evaluating its potential
  • Maximizing its recovery
  • Transportation & storage

These are performed by three broad categories of engineers:

  • The drilling engineer
  • The production engineer
  • The reservoir engineer

Petroleum engineering consists of many different specialties. It can involve working with contractors to:

  • Design and oversee multi-million dollar drilling operations
  • Run experiments to improve oil and gas production
  • Create computer-simulated models to determine the best recovery process

Petroleum engineers can specialize in environmental safety regulations, or they can move into other areas such as entrepreneurship and consulting. Another developing opportunity is in sales engineering. This involves the service and testing functions for various types of equipment in the industry.

Career Specialties for Petroleum Engineers:

  • Geologists look for crude oil and natural gas by studying rock formations and cuttings from drilling sites. They can analyze data from geological surveys, field maps, and seismic studies to help identify reservoirs.
  • Geophysicists study the earth's external and internal composition. They examine ground and surface waters, atmosphere, and magnetic and gravitational fields. They combine the principles of mathematics, physics, and chemistry along with three-dimensional computer modeling to locate oil and gas reserves.
  • Before a well can be drilled in the United States, the drilling company must obtain the rights from the landowner. This responsibility falls to the petroleum landman, who must obtain the government permits and negotiate the rights from ranchers, farmers, or other landowners. The job combines legal knowledge with communication, research, and negotiation skills.
  • A drilling operation can cost millions of dollars. Therefore, it is necessary to determine the best and most economical plan for drilling. The drilling engineer works with the drilling contractors to confirm the location and design a procedure to accomplish their task.
  • Before, during, and after a drilling project, the well-log analyst is responsible for obtaining core samples and analyzing them for potential. Analysts must use sophisticated equipment, such as electronic, nuclear, and acoustic tools. They rely on their talents to interpret the data from these systems into meaningful recommendations.
  • Once a well has been drilled, the production engineer must determine the best way to bring the petroleum to the surface.
  • To achieve as much profit as possible from a well, companies need to bring as much oil to the surface as possible. The reservoir engineer, often working in conjunction with the production engineer, examines the fluid and pressure distributions throughout the reservoir to achieve maximum results.
  • Facility engineers separate, process, and transport the oil and natural gas after it has been brought to the surface. They also design and build pipelines to move the petroleum from the drill site all the way to the point of sale.
  • The safety engineer is responsible for ensuring the safety of the people who work around the oil and natural gas. S/he keeps track of safety regulations and design plans to make certain those guidelines are met and documented.
  • Environmental/Regulatory specialists might come from a variety of areas, but can include petroleum engineers. Working with a team of experts, they make sure all environmental regulations are met.
  • Chemical engineers might be involved in anything from designing a plant for processing oil to researching new products or improving current production.
  • Petroleum accountants are charged with placing a value on the oil and gas that might be produced in the future, thereby establishing corporate assets.
  • The energy economist must analyze business conditions and develop financial strategies that are critical to a company's success. An understanding of finances and the petroleum industry is vital.

Several other careers can blossom out of a petroleum engineering degree. Petroleum engineers who have obtained a certain level of competence and respect in the industry can move on to consulting for several companies instead of working for just one. Some professionals might also decide to develop their own companies or obtain an advanced degree to move into an academic career.

Certification and Licensure

In an effort to promote the industry and protect the public welfare, the Society of Petroleum Engineers has been heavily involved in establishing standards for minimum competency requirements. Engineers who are at different career levels can use the standards established by the SPE to guide their development.

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