Is Petroleum Engineering Training Keeping Up with the Times?
While the oil and gas industry is in the midst of an energy transition, so too are various related university disciplines.
Some academics see enrollment changes in petroleum engineering not just based on available job opportunities and the cyclical nature of the industry, but also gains in operations efficiency and technology. As a result, curricula are being adjusted to diversify subjects and embed soft skills and topics like data analytics as well as environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) throughout engineering courses. This approach focuses on holistic applications and the need for qualified candidates in the entire areas of sustainability, energy transformation, and economic growth.
“As far as the energy transition is concerned, the future focus for geoscientists and petroleum engineers is that they have skill sets to characterize the subsurface rigorously and understand the fluid-rock interaction in the pore space,” said Mukul Bhatia, executive professor and director of the Berg-Hughes Center for Petroleum & Sedimentary Systems at Texas A&M University in College Station.
“The principles and skill set used in the recovery of oil and gas resources are also applicable in the energy transition fields like enhanced oil recovery, carbon storage, hydrogen energy, geothermal resource development, and even in nuclear waste material.”
Although the approach to teaching and learning is changing, petroleum engineering is fundamental to innovation in the oil and gas industry. Traditional ways of teaching and learning about rock and fluid characterization; reserves booking and production forecasting; modeling, simulation and development planning; drilling and completion technology; as well as economic assessments are not going away, according to Bhatia. It’s what should be taught in addition to these topics that is being evaluated.
“We will still need to perform oil exploration and extraction. Skills such as drilling and completions are still very much required in the longer term,” said Vicki Knott, CEO at Crux OCM, which uses real-time artificial intelligence to optimize semi-autonomous pipeline operations. “This transition will take decades or more. As we have seen in other industries, there will be a decreasing demand for certain skill sets, but they likely will not disappear completely for a very long time.”
Some in academia see limitations to the current approach to “Big Data” – it is only as effective as the information available and the way information is input and applied. So, how can a vast amount of complex data be analyzed based on information better extracted from data sets to maintain the industry’s competitive edge?
“With the broadening of disciplines and availability of enormous digital data, the employers’ expectations are that the petroleum engineers and geoscientist will continue to have the physics-driven understanding of the core subjects,” Bhatia said. “Engineers need to have the ability to manipulate large data sets and use machine-learning principles to extrapolate in geological space and time during the lifecycle of the oil and gas fields. Those who have the additional coding skills and good understanding of the statistics will find that they have opportunities well beyond oil and gas disciplines.”
For Jennifer Miskimins, department head and professor of petroleum engineering at Colorado School of Mines, it’s about taking care of the data’s lifecycle and embedding it in courses.
“Data analytics is not necessarily a separate topic, it’s important to drilling, it’s important to reservoir aspects, it’s important to the production of the wells,” she said. “We are an industry that takes in tremendous amounts of data. I think someone told me at one point in time that any given well is going to have something like 4 billion points of data over its lifetime, and so we need to be able to take care of that from a lifecycle perspective. We’re seeing more blending in our curriculum and more desire from our industry partners to have data analytic skills.”
Insights and instincts
Emphasis on soft skills is one area on the rise, ranging from technical excellence to professional behavior and leadership, to holistic communication. It’s not enough to be able to talk about petroleum engineering or the industry instinctively.
“We’re seeing more expansion of our topical offerings in those areas, but not stand-alone. They’ve got to be blended throughout,” Miskimins said. “You can’t just take a class and teach students ESG in a class. Students need to know how it’s important to our industry across-the-board and the same thing with the soft skills. I think that’s where we’re seeing the changes.
“We get a lot of questions from people who are just coming into the school and especially parents. They want to know if they (or their child) will have a long-term career if they study petroleum engineering. I have no hesitation telling them that they will. You’re part of the solution, not the problem,” she continued. “It’s a fun industry with great people to work with and a lot of opportunities, as long as you have a passion for and enjoy what you’re doing.”
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