Petroleum engineers design and develop methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits below the earth’s surface. Petroleum engineers also find new ways to extract oil and gas from older wells.
Petroleum engineers typically do the following:
- Design equipment to extract oil and gas in the most profitable way
- Develop ways to inject water, chemicals, gases, or steam into an oil reserve to force out more of the oil
- Develop plans to drill in oil and gas fields, and then to recover the oil and gas
- Make sure that wells, well testing, and well surveys are completed and evaluated
- Use computer-controlled drilling or fracturing to connect a larger area of an oil and gas deposit to a single well
- Make sure that oil field equipment is installed, operated, and maintained properly
Oil and gas deposits, or reservoirs, are located deep in rock formations underground. These reservoirs can only be accessed by drilling wells, either on land or at sea from offshore oil rigs.
Once oil and gas are discovered, petroleum engineers work with geologists and other specialists to understand the geologic formation of the rock containing the reservoir. They then determine drilling methods, design and implement the drilling equipment, and monitor operations.
The best techniques currently being used recover only a portion of the oil and gas in a reservoir, so petroleum engineers also research and develop new ways to recover the oil and gas. This helps to lower the cost of drilling and production.
The following are examples of types of petroleum engineers:
Completions engineers decide the optimal way to finish building a well so that the oil or gas will flow up from underground. They oversee well-completions work, which might involve the use of tubing, hydraulic fracturing, or pressure-control techniques.
Drilling engineers determine the best way to drill an oil or gas well, taking into account a number of factors, including cost. They also ensure that the drilling process is safe, efficient, and minimally disruptive to the environment.
Production engineers take over after a well is completed. They typically monitor the well’s oil and gas production. If a well is not producing as much as it was expected to, production engineers figure out ways to increase the amount being extracted.
Reservoir engineers estimate how much oil or gas can be recovered from underground deposits, known as reservoirs. They study a reservoir’s characteristics and determine which methods will get the most oil or gas out of the reservoir. They also monitor operations to ensure that the optimal levels of these resources are being recovered.
Petroleum engineers held about 38,500 jobs in 2012.
Petroleum engineers generally work in offices or in research laboratories. However, they also must spend time at drilling sites, often for long periods of time. This means they must travel, sometimes with little notice.
The industries that employed the most petroleum engineers in 2012 were as follows:
|Oil and gas extraction||53%|
|Support activities for mining||14|
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||7|
|Petroleum and coal products manufacturing||6|
|Management of companies and enterprises||6|
Petroleum engineers work around the world; in fact, the best employment opportunities may include some work in other countries. Petroleum engineers also must be able to work with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including other oil and gas workers who will carry out the engineers’ drilling plans.
Petroleum engineers typically work regular full-time schedules. However, some work as many as 50 or 60 hours per week when traveling to and from drilling sites to help in their operation or respond to problems when they arise. When they are at a drilling site, it is common for these engineers to work in a rotation: on duty for 84 hours and then off duty for 84 hours.
Petroleum engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, preferably in petroleum engineering. However, a bachelor’s degree in mechanical or chemical engineering may also suffice. Employers also value work experience, so cooperative education programs, in which students earn academic credit for structured job experience, are valuable as well.
Students interested in studying petroleum engineering will benefit from taking high school courses in math, such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus; and in science, such as biology, chemistry, and physics.
Entry-level petroleum engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Bachelor's degree programs typically take 4 years and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies in areas such as engineering principles, geology, and thermodynamics. Most colleges and universities offer cooperative programs in which students gain practical experience while completing their education.
Some colleges and universities offer a 5-year program in chemical or mechanical engineering that leads to both a bachelor’s degree and a master's degree. Some employers may prefer applicants who have earned a graduate degree. A graduate degree also allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some universities or in research and development.
ABET accredits programs in petroleum engineering.
Analytical skills. Petroleum engineers must be able to assess complex plans for drilling and anticipate possible flaws or complications before the company commits money and people to a project.
Creativity. Petroleum engineers must come up with new ways to extract oil and gas because each new drill site presents challenges. They must know how to ask the necessary questions to find possible deposits of oil and gas.
Math skills. Petroleum engineers use the principals of calculus and other advanced topics in math for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.
Problem-solving skills. Identifying problems in drilling plans is critical for petroleum engineers because drilling operations can be costly. They must be careful not to overlook any potential issues and quickly address those that do occur.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All 50 states and the District of Columbia require petroleum engineers to have a license if they offer their services directly to the public. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally has the following requirements:
- A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- A minimum of 4 years of relevant work experience
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken after earning a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After gaining suitable work experience, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.
Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their license. Most states recognize licensure from other states if the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.
The Society of Petroleum Engineers offers certification. To be certified, petroleum engineers must be members of the Society, pass an exam, and meet other qualifications.
Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers also may receive formal training. As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.
Eventually, petroleum engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some become engineering managers or move into other managerial positions. For more information, see the profile on architectural and engineering managers.
Petroleum engineers who go into sales use their engineering background to discuss a product's technical aspects with potential buyers and help in product planning, installation, and use. For more information, see the profile on sales engineers.
The median annual wage for petroleum engineers was $130,280 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $75,030, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for petroleum engineers in the top five industries employing these engineers were as follows:
|Oil and gas extraction||$144,810|
|Management of companies and enterprises||143,240|
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||121,790|
|Petroleum and coal products manufacturing||120,440|
|Support activities for mining||101,800|
The Society of Petroleum Engineers reports that the median base pay among its members in 2012 varied by type of petroleum engineer:
|Engineers — Drilling||$212,123|
|Engineers — Completions||197,739|
|Engineers — Production||194,481|
|Engineers — Reservoir||187,780|
Petroleum engineers typically work full time. Many work as many as 50 or 60 hours per week when traveling to and from drilling sites to help in their operation or respond to problems as they arise. When they are at a drilling site, it is common for these engineers to work in a rotation: on duty for 84 hours and then off duty for 84 hours.
Employment of petroleum engineers is projected to grow 26 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Oil prices will be a major determinant of employment growth, as higher prices lead to increasing complexity of oil companies’ operations. Additionally, job prospects should be highly favorable because many engineers are expected to retire.
Because oil and gas extraction is the largest industry employing petroleum engineers, any effects of rising oil prices will likely be noticed here first. Higher prices can cause oil and gas companies to drill in deeper waters and in less hospitable places and return to existing wells to try new extraction methods. This means that oil drilling operations will likely become more complex and will require more engineers to work on each drilling operation. In addition, more petroleum engineers will be needed to help companies comply with new regulations for drilling in deep water.
Demand for petroleum engineers in support activities for mining should also be strong, as oil and gas companies find it convenient and cost-effective to seek their services on an as-needed basis. This is partly because petroleum engineering is one of the higher paying occupations in the economy. Experienced petroleum engineers also may start their own companies and provide services to larger oil and gas companies.
Job prospects are expected to be highly favorable because of projected growth and because many petroleum engineers may retire or leave the occupation for other reasons over the next decade.
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