Fossil Fuels and Modern Society
Most credible energy experts and economists agree that fossil fuels will continue to serve as the predominate source of national and global energy for the foreseeable future. While in recent years, energy alternatives like solar, wind, and hydropower have been rapidly expanding into the global energy portfolio, fossil fuels still power the vast majority of the world’s cities, transportation systems, and the manufacturing industry that develops airplanes, heavy machinery, building materials, consumer electronics, and many other goods and services. Even everyday items like smartphones, plastic materials, cosmetics, and asphalt roadways wouldn’t be as engrained within society without the use of fossil fuels. In order to continue to fuel the needs of modern societies, the discipline of petroleum engineering has ensured that the supply and demand of crude oil can be met at both the national and global levels.
Petroleum engineering plays a crucial role in the development of the global oil and gas industry. By using the principles of physics, mathematics, and geology, petroleum engineers are able to address and tackle critical issues to help shape modern societies and achieve energy security (University of Texas, 2019). Through a combination of continual industry innovation, exploration, and growth, petroleum engineering offers a fast-paced, and often demanding career for those that crave an engineering career that combines the disciplines of mechanical, chemical, and civil engineering into a single discipline that is focused on powering the world with reliable and sustainable forms of fuel.
The Demand for Petroleum Engineers
Given the importance of global energy systems and energy security as a whole, petroleum engineers are in high demand around the world. Additionally, because of their significance, petroleum engineers are also one of the most highly compensated professionals within any industry. According to U.S. News and World Report, workers with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering can expect to earn around $94,000 at the start of their careers, and an occupation-wide average of $175,000 during the middle of their careers (Hess, 2018). Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that in 2017, the median salary for all petroleum engineers was $132,280 (Hess, 2018). However, a report from U.S. News and World Report also stated that petroleum engineers may experience higher than average stress levels and below average flexibility in terms of a work-life balance.
Petroleum engineers are involved with a wide array of activities that are crucial to oil and gas industry operations. On a daily basis, petroleum engineers may evaluate the size and density of potential oil and gas reservoirs, select and implement plans for the extraction of oil and gas reserves, and design surface collection and treatment facilities that would be used following the recovery of crude oil or natural gas resources (University of Texas, 2019). As part of their analysis to identify reserves and develop recovery plans, petroleum engineers frequently use supercomputers to create detailed analyses of exploration data and simulate what would happen to a given reservoir of oil or natural gas as reserves are pumped out of the ground. Through the advancement of new technology, petroleum engineering has worked to develop sophisticated automation tools for oilfield production and drilling operations that enhance the safety, sustainability, and efficiency of fossil fuel extraction.
Source: Alpha Engineering
Challenges and Opportunities
As easy-to-reach oil and gas reserves have started to become less accessible around the world, petroleum engineers are faced with a future that will be dominated by new challenges and potential opportunities. These professionals have been tasked with applying and developing new technology to locate, identify, and develop extraction plans for the recovery of previously unrecoverable fossil fuel reserves, like shale oil, offshore oil, tar sands oil, and natural gas fields. Moreover, after conventional drilling and extraction techniques are exhausted, petroleum engineers must devise new techniques to extract fossil fuel resources in hard-to-reach reserves through a cost-effective and efficient process. Since these issues are not restricted to the U.S. alone, petroleum engineers are in high demand all around the world and must be able to solve a wide variety of technological, economic, and political problems encountered in every assignment (University of Texas, 2019). The prospect of exciting challenges, a high level of compensation, and the need for continual technological advancement has made petroleum engineering one of the most sought-after careers in the fossil fuel industry.
The History of Petroleum Engineering
The history of petroleum engineering dates back to August 27, 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where engineers drilled sixty-nine feet below the ground to extract an oil reserve. The oil producers at that time employed the same technology that had been used to extract water. Since then, the oil drilling technology has improved tremendously, with typical oil drilling operations reaching several miles beneath Earth’s surface. Moreover, with the advent of horizontal drilling technology, petroleum engineers have made it technically and economically feasible to extract immense offshore oil and gas reserves through a single drilling operation located miles away (University of Kansas, 2019). Today’s sophisticated technology pushes oil via an injector well to production facilities, while historically, oil producers relied on natural energy to suck up oil from a hole in the ground to an above-ground storage facility.
The petroleum engineering profession didn’t officially begin until over half a century had passed from when the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. In 1914, the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME) was the organization that kicked the profession into motion. In 1915, one year after the AIME was first established, the University of Pittsburgh was the first university to begin to offer a degree in petroleum engineering. Since then, numerous other institutions, societies, and organizations were created to support petroleum engineering such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), and the Journal of Petroleum Technology. Moreover, the petroleum engineering degree has also evolved into a subject area that contains numerous sub-disciplines like reservoir engineering, drilling engineering, completion engineering, production engineering, and petrophysics, which is the study of physical and chemical rock components and their interactions with fluids.
Roles and Responsibilities
Each of the petroleum engineering sub-disciplines has a key role in the process of fossil fuel extraction. Reservoir engineers take the first step in an oil or gas extraction operation by determining the amount of hydrocarbons and analyzing the most efficient method to extract the oil or gas within the existing environment. Reservoir engineers are also responsible for predicting the recoverable oil and gas and determining the size of the investment that a fossil fuel company would have to make to extract the resources.
Following the analysis conducted by a reservoir engineer, a drilling engineer would then be tasked with designing and calculating the essential parameters needed to successfully drill an oil or gas well using the least costly method as possible. Since drilling is the most expensive part of oil and gas extraction, a drilling engineer is essential for fossil fuel companies to identify the most cost-effective approach to extracting the hydrocarbons that were identified by the reservoir engineer. Depending on the overall complexity and design, drilling a well could be a multimillion-dollar investment for a fossil fuel company (University of Kansas, 2019).
After an oil or gas reserve is identified by a reservoir engineer, and a drilling method is analyzed and selected by a drilling engineer, a production engineer then steps in to take over the operation. The production engineer is responsible for ensuring that that the hydrocarbons, whether in the form of oil or natural gas, are extracted from below the ground to the surface in the safest and most efficient way possible. Production engineers analyze, interpret, and optimize the strategy of an extraction operation to ensure that the performance of each oil or gas well continues to remain profitable and safe (University of Kansas, 2019). The production engineer must work diligently with the reservoir engineer to continually increase the efficiency of production. As one oil or gas well is depleted, the production engineer coordinates with the reservoir engineer to identify alternate wells for optimal oil and gas operation efficiency. Additionally, the production engineer is responsible for designing and maintaining the above-ground storage facilities, stock tanks, and separators for oil, gas, and water resources.
In recent years, many new technologies have been developed that have not only changed the petroleum engineering profession, but also the oil and gas industry as a whole. Improvements related to computer modeling, probability analysis, and materials technology have led to the development of new oil and gas breakthroughs from enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling. The petroleum engineering toolbox has also been greatly augmented in recent decades from automation, high-tech sensors, and robots that are being used to enhance the safety and efficiency of the fossil fuel industry. Furthermore, these new technologies have also propelled petroleum engineers to be able to find vast new deposits of oil and gas in places that were once thought of as impossible for the fossil fuel industry to explore. Through the use of intelligent systems, thermo-hydraulics, and geomechanics, modern petroleum engineers are now able to explore for oil and gas in high temperature and high pressure (HTHP) environments.
Well drilling technology is a primary focus for petroleum engineers that specialize in drilling operations for oil and gas deposits. Percussion and rotary drilling are the two modern forms of well drilling that are employed by petroleum engineers. Rotary drilling is the most commonly used technique, which involves an industrial drill bit that provides a massive amount of torque and pressure to rotate and grind down through bedrock to access fossil fuel reserves. Compressed air is used to spray water and other chemicals from the head of the drill to assist with fracturing rock and to create a continuously clear path for the drill to keep moving further below ground.
Percussion drilling involves driving a hammer on top of a drill bit to blast through extremely challenging bedrock. Percussive force is produced by a hydraulic drilling rig to send waves of energy into the Earth to penetrate through hard rock. These two drilling technologies can be used with vertical drilling, horizontal drilling, and directional drilling in order to access hydrocarbons from impermeable reservoirs below the Earth’s surface. To optimize the efficiency of drilling operations, petroleum engineers often make use of drilling simulators to test which drilling method may offer the best approach for accessing hydrocarbons in the real-world environment.
A Demanding Future
With scenarios predicting that oil production will range from 80 to 130 million barrels per day by 2040, the world will continue to need petroleum engineers for the foreseeable future (Rassenfoss, 2019). Spencer Dale, the chief economist for the multinational oil company BP, expects that oil companies will have to invest trillions of dollars in the coming decades related to exploration and production. Therefore, petroleum engineers will continue to be responsible for ensuring that oil company investments are being efficiently allocated to optimize the production of oil and gas resources.
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University of Texas. (2019). “What is petroleum engineering?” University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering.
University of Kansas. (2019). “Why a career in Petroleum Engineering?” University of Kansas Chemical & Petroleum Engineering.