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As oil prices continue to climb and as the United States continues to wean itself from foreign oil, petroleum engineers are going to play an increasingly important and valuable role in the country.
What Is Petroleum Engineering and What Do Petroleum Engineers Do?
While many may associate petroleum engineering with environmentally troubling images of offshore oil rigs or giant pumping rigs in the California desert, the reality is that petroleum engineers strive to design and develop methods of extracting oil and natural gas from beneath the earth's surface in a way that is not only economically feasible but environmentally benign. Their work is concentrated in oil- and natural gas-rich areas such as Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and California, although new extraction methods are redefining what is petroleum engineering and taking these drilling and extraction experts to other parts of the country, such as the Dakotas and Pennsylvania. Many petroleum engineers end up traveling to other countries on projects as well.
Once oil or gas deposits have been discovered, petroleum engineers work with geologists to better understand rock formations and other geologic characteristics that influence methods for extracting the resource. Petroleum engineers typically design the equipment needed to extract oil and gas from underground reservoirs. This often involves injecting water, chemicals, gases or steam underground to force out the resource and directing it to a single well, where it can be safely recovered, stored and transported. The job requires that wells, well testing and well surveys are complete and carefully evaluated, and that all oil field equipment is maintained and operated properly.
Since most oil and natural gas wells usually only recover a portion of the known reserves, petroleum engineers also focus on new methods for recovering oil and gas and analyze the potential for extracting resources from older wells.
Training and Education for Petroleum Engineering
Petroleum engineers can enter the workforce with a bachelor's degree in engineering or petroleum engineering. These four-year degrees include classroom, laboratory and field studies in engineering, geology and thermodynamics. Most petroleum engineering colleges give petroleum engineering students an opportunity to gain practical experience in the field as part of their education. Some petroleum engineering colleges offer five- or six-year programs that can lead to master's degrees and work experience.
Petroleum engineers offering their services directly to the public must obtain a license, which requires a degree from an accredited program. Candidates also have to pass a Fundamentals of Engineering exam, a Professional Engineering exam, and have four years of work experience. Petroleum engineers can also earn certification from the Society of Petroleum Engineers, which requires that you join the society, pass a test and meet other qualifications (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
Entry-level petroleum engineers typically work under a more experienced engineer and may receive advanced, formal training from their employer. Some petroleum engineers advance to more complex assignments or supervisory roles, and some go into sales, where they use their experience to explain the technical aspects of petroleum extraction equipment.
There are several professions that are similar to petroleum engineers, including aerospace engineers, architectural engineers, chemical and materials scientists, geoscientists and materials engineers. These jobs all require a high level of problem-solving, math, creative and analytical skills, as well as the ability to work with people from other fields and backgrounds.
Employment Outlook for Petroleum Engineers
Most jobs and the highest salaries for petroleum engineers are in the oil and gas extraction industry, but there are also jobs for petroleum engineers in mining, architecture, management, and petroleum and coal products manufacturing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median wage nationwide for petroleum engineers as of May 2012 is $130,280, with the highest employment levels in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, and Colorado (BLS.gov/oes, 2013). The BLS predicts jobs in the field will grow 17 percent between 2010 to 2020 (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Petroleum Engineers," U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/petroleum-engineers.htm
Forbes, "The 5 College Degrees With the Biggest Salaries: No. 1 Petroleum Engineering," http://www.forbes.com/pictures/efkk45eghj/1-petroleum-engineering/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012: Petroleum Engineers," U.S. Department of Labor, March 29, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes172171.htm
Society of Petroleum Engineers, http://www.spe.org/training/
Jim Sloan is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.