A More Diversified Petroleum Engineering Education for New Energy Challenges
- Lyman L. Handy (U. of Southern California)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- December 1987
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 1,591 - 1,592
- 1987. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 5.9.2 Geothermal Resources, 6.1.5 Human Resources, Competence and Training, 5.5.8 History Matching, 6.5.4 Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, 7.5.4 University Curricula, 7.4.5 Future of energy/oil and gas, 1.6.9 Coring, Fishing
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Although the most diversified petroleum engineering program possible should be provided for our undergraduates, such a program cannot be at the expense of our current core programs. An undergraduate curriculum emphasizing basic science and engineering is our best assurance that our graduates can contribute to society in spite of cyclic demand for petroleum engineers. Petroleum engineering departments and the profession should anticipate the need for engineers to develop alternative energy sources, but this is not expected to affect petroleum engineering programs significantly before the turn of the century. These changes, when they do come, most likely will and should occur first in graduate programs.
Prospects for Tomorrow's Petroleum Engineer
The past is the best predictor of the future. This highly regarded principle in reservoir engineering is implemented by history matching and extrapolation. It is also our most reliable guide in attempting to estimate the need and educational requirements for petroleum engineers at the beginning of the 21st century. The principle works well when one has continuous functions. Unfortunately for those of us trying to anticipate the future in petroleum engineering education, the past 20 years in the petroleum industry have been filled with discontinuities to the degree that discontinuity has become an essential part of the past to be matched. We are told in bad times (less so in good times) that this business is a cyclic one. That may be true, but the cycle generating our curve has a square wheel. We don't follow a nice smooth sine curve. Instead, we seem lately to move through a series of disconcerting step functions the timing and the magnitude of which are impossible for us to control and hazardous to predict.
Nevertheless, even though our past may be like the sets of widely scattered data points through which petroleum engineers freely draw lines, it does permit some reasonable predictions about the future. In fact, events associated with the more recent discontinuities may give us very good clues about what almost certainly will be in our future.
We need only to go back to the Arab oil embargo and the events that immediately followed to get some very good ideas about the consequences for our society when liquid fossil fuels are in short supply. We were not prepared for an energy shortage at that time, and we are not prepared for one now. Then, the public for a few brief moments appreciated that our oil and gas resources were finite and that a consistent national energy policy needed to be developed. That crisis passed, and we are currently faced with an oil glut. The public believes the whole shortage was a hoax. Nevertheless, in the not-too-distant future, we will again be facing the same problems. Then, as at the time of the embargo, we will be looking at the total energy picture for the U.S. and the world and the role that fossil fuels play in that picture.
Given that the extrapolation from now to the beginning of the 21st century is only a surprising 13 years, we are likely to have gone through another discontinuity, and we will be reassessing the role of petroleum engineering education as we were in 1973, and as we are now.
What are the questions we should be asking ourselves? The clues to the questions, and to some extent the answers, come from our thoughts in the early 1970's. Then, we were thinking in terms of developing a curriculum that better encompassed the broader aspects of energy while still preparing our students for a career in petroleum engineering as it was practiced at that time. The circumstances are significantly different now. The industry is slow to the point of being stopped as far as our recent graduates are concerned. Nevertheless, the same questions about breadth of the curriculum arise, but now with respect to job opportunities. Is our program so narrow and so specialized that our graduates can be candidates for employment in only one industry? Must we over the years until the turn of the century go through alternate periods of surplus and deficiency of graduates? Is, in fact, our curriculum indeed that narrow, or is that just the perception others have of our programs?
Actually the petroleum engineering curricula are among the broader-based ones in all of engineering. On the average, about 25% of a petroleum engineering curriculum consists of petroleum engineering courses. For most other engineering majors, 30 to more than 40% of the courses are in the major field. Nevertheless, our graduates are not seriously considered as candidates for employment by other industries. If we feel unduly sorry for ourselves, we should note in passing that aerospace engineering has the same problem, but the cycles have been about 180° out of phase with ours. Are there things we can do to our curricula to provide a wider range of opportunities for our graduates while still fulfilling our primary function of supplying petroleum engineers for the petroleum industry? Perhaps we should combine aerospace and petroleum engineering departments and thereby eliminate the pulses.
Broader Coverage of Energy Topics
If we again use the 70's as a model of what might occur in the next 1 or 2 decades, we can anticipate a new emphasis on certain alternative energy sources in the petroleum engineering curriculum. To lay claim to at least a significant segment of the technology associated with new energy sources, SPE defined all sources of energy produced from wells as falling legitimately within the field of petroleum engineering. There was a great burst of activity, especially in the area of geothermal energy, but also lesser activity on the topic of in-situ uranium leaching and other novel subjects for petroleum engineers. The impact of this broader definition of petroleum engineering on the undergraduate curriculum was minimal, however. Some elective courses were added on geothermal energy. One introductory course, which lays claim to the whole topic of energy policy and industries, was introduced by at least one university (A Survey of Energy Industries offered at Stanford U ., Stanford, CA). It is important that petroleum engineers establish early that energy, not just oil and gas, is going to be our emphasis in the future. Such a course might be a model for other departments. Currently, courses related to energy sources other than oil and gas, if given at all, are offered at the graduate level, as they probably should be.
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