Petroleum Engineers


Exploring this Job

One of the most satisfying ways to explore this occupation is to participate in Technology Student Association. Participants enter engineering design and problem-solving contests and learn team development skills, often with an engineering mentor. Science fairs and clubs also offer fun and challenging ways to learn about engineering.

The Society of Petroleum Engineers offers a student membership and online forums to ask petroleum engineers questions. This is an easy, quick, and highly beneficial way to gain direction in the petroleum engineering field.

Trade journals and the associations listed at the end of this article are other helpful resources that will help you learn more about the career of petroleum engineer.

For information on careers and training, visit the following Web sites: Energy4Me (http://www.energy4me.org) and Get Into Energy (http://www.getintoenergy.com). 

The Job

Petroleum engineer is a rather generalized title that encompasses several specialties. In general, petroleum engineers are involved in the entire process of oil recovery, from preliminary steps, such as analyzing cost factors, to the last stages, such as monitoring the production rate and then repacking the well after it has been depleted.

Petroleum engineering is closely related to the separate engineering discipline of geoscience engineering. Before petroleum engineers can begin work on an oil reservoir, prospective sites must be sought by geological engineers, along with geologists and geophysicists. These scientists determine whether a site has potential oil. Petroleum engineers develop plans for drilling. Drilling is usually unsuccessful, with eight out of 10 test wells being "dusters" (dry wells) and only one of the remaining two test wells having enough oil to be commercially producible. When a significant amount of oil is discovered, engineers can begin their work of maximizing oil production at the site. The development company's engineering manager oversees the activities of the various petroleum engineering specialties, including reservoir engineers, drilling engineers, and production engineers.

Reservoir engineers use the data gathered by the previous geoscience studies and estimate the actual amount of oil that will be extracted from the reservoir. It is the reservoir engineers who determine whether the oil will be taken by primary methods (simply pumping the oil from the field) or by enhanced methods (using additional energy such as water pressure to force the oil up). The reservoir engineer is responsible for calculating the cost of the recovery process relative to the expected value of the oil produced and simulates future performance using sophisticated computer models. Besides performing studies of existing company-owned oil fields, reservoir engineers also evaluate fields the company is thinking of buying.

Drilling engineers work with geologists and drilling contractors to design and supervise drilling operations. They are the engineers involved with the actual drilling of the well. They determine the best methods for penetrating the earth. It is the responsibility of these workers to supervise the building of the derrick (a platform, constructed over the well, that holds the hoisting devices), choose the equipment, and plan the drilling methods. Drilling engineers must have a thorough understanding of the geological sciences so that they can know, for instance, how much stress to place on the rock being drilled.

Production engineers determine the most efficient methods and equipment to optimize oil and gas production. For example, they establish the proper pumping unit configuration and perform tests to determine well fluid levels and pumping load. They plan field workovers and well stimulation techniques such as secondary and tertiary recovery (for example, injecting steam, water, or a special recovery fluid) to maximize field production.

Various research personnel are involved in this field; some are more specialized than others. They include the research chief engineer, who directs studies related to the design of new drilling and production methods, the oil-well equipment research engineer, who directs research to design improvements in oil-well machinery and devices, and the oil-field equipment test engineer, who conducts experiments to determine the effectiveness and safety of these improvements.

In addition to all of the above, sales personnel play an important part in the petroleum industry. Oil-well equipment and services sales engineers sell various types of equipment and devices used in all stages of oil recovery. They provide technical support and service to their clients, including oil companies and drilling contractors.