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Meeting the World’s Energy Needs Through Innovation and Insight

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JPT asked several active SPE members about the appeal of petroleum engineering, the significance of the work they do, and what the future may hold. Here are some of their answers.

What are the most positive aspects of being a petroleum engineer?

I dreamed of being a petroleum engineer as early as middle school in the 1990s. Eventually, I studied petroleum engineering in college. After spending more than 20 years in the oil and gas industry, working in numerous countries and being involved in many megaprojects, I believe the most positive aspect of being a petroleum engineer is the fact that we deal with the world’s energy needs. The task of production alone faces many challenges, but at the same time, we as petroleum engineers are responsible for a proactive approach to safety and the environment in our operations. We are heavily involved in technology, which allows us to explore and produce resources safely and minimize environmental impact. 

Ardian Nengkoda, Group Lead, Saudi Aramco

Being a petroleum engineer means that you follow one of the most influential career paths in our society because hydrocarbon resources will continue to be the dominant source of energy for the next 5 decades, and their use will be required for the next century and beyond.

Luigi Saputelli, Petroleum Engineering Consultant, Frontender

I have always felt that by being a petroleum engineer I am helping people to live a better life. We make transportation possible; we keep people warm; we provide medicine and material for plastics such as cell phones, computers, and many other things that are part of the modern lifestyle. I enjoy being a petroleum engineer because in a single day you can do a huge variety of things, and over the course of a career you can change your focus from production to reservoir or drilling and face new challenges and learn more with each passing year. Through SPE we can always be learning. I have also loved the fact that in every company I was encouraged to do volunteer work in the community, from giving talks to grade schools, judging science fairs, teaching children and adults to read, planting trees, picking up trash, mentoring, and serving on a board. The ways we are encouraged to serve is endless.  

Joyce Holtzclaw, Senior Vice President, E&B Natural Resources

As petroleum engineers, we get the opportunity to develop new reserves of oil and gas for the people on this planet, to allow them to travel, go to work, warm and cool themselves, and allow industry to function.

Eric Delamaide, General Manager, IFP Technologies

I am a mechanical engineer who has been a member of SPE since 1980. I have specialized in the development of downhole tools over my entire career. The most positive aspect of being an engineer in the energy industry is the opportunity to innovate. Our industry has historically advanced due to the efforts of innovators. Because our industry has always attracted very bright minds, the pace and breadth of innovation has been extensive, and exciting to participate in. And the industry will continue to innovate.

Doug Lehr, Senior Manager, Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE)

This profession gives you a feeling of being on a perpetual, adventurous expedition. There is excitement, there is frustration, and, at the end of it all, there is hope. There is a sense of fulfillment that your idea is resulting in benefits both for the company and for the society at large.

R.V. Marathe, Independent Reservoir Engineering Consultant

The opportunity to meet people from around the world in this industry is almost without equal. It is truly a global industry, and has an impact on people’s lives that is tangible and visible wherever you are. And it is a continuous stream of challenges and problems to solve that make every day interesting and an opportunity to learn and grow professionally.

Tom Knode, Principal Consultant, vPSI Group

One of the most positive aspects of being a petroleum engineer is the very visible and often immediate impact that can be seen in the decisions and choices that you make. This feedback loop means that there is no hiding place, but there is a genuine, tangible measure of your impact. Each generation is standing on the shoulders of giants, and to be able to contribute to such a discipline is incredibly rewarding. Seeing, globally, the positive impact that cheap and available energy has on quality of life, life expectancy, standard of living, education, and health reminds us that this industry affects individuals.

Martin Rylance, Global Senior Adviser, BP Russia

What would you tell a petroleum engineer just beginning his/her career?

Regardless of the price of oil, starting a career as a petroleum engineer will put you in the front lines to innovate to produce in an economical and environmentally friendly way. You may work in the finding and extraction process, or in the areas of product manufacturing and commercialization. Downturns have motivated continuous efficiency improvement and introduction of disruptive technologies over time. This creates enormous opportunities for new generations to leverage on the digital technologies not commonly used such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, digital automation, and environmental solutions.

Saputelli, Frontender

The simple answer is, “Be different and patient to survive in this industry, and also be an achiever.”

What do I mean by “different?” Remember that this is a survival-of-the-fittest practice. To be fit, hard work is a must. Then comes hard skills, knowledge, and creativity. Knowledge is still gold (despite the common mindset that Internet access can replace functional, individual knowledge), and soft skills are silver. These are not enough without ethical and moral values.  

Keep in mind that everybody has the same capability in accessing knowledge today. But this is not really knowledge. Real knowledge is what you uploaded into your own natural hard drive, and what you digested from it, which becomes, eventually, experience. So learn, learn, learn—as much as you can.

And what do I mean by “patient?” This industry is all about ups and downs, but remember that oil and gas are still the most traded commodities in the world, moreso even than food. In the up times, invest for down days, which will come sooner or later, but will not last too long.   

Finally, ask yourself these questions occasionally: Why should I be hired instead of others in my class? What makes me different? My intelligence, my knowledge? Or my leadership, inter­relationship, entrepreneurship, and personal skills? Or my good character, my reliable personality? Continuously add values to keep fit for survival.

Tayfun Babadagli, Professor of Petroleum Engineering, University of Alberta

You have chosen a rewarding career, one full of opportunities. Sometimes you may get assignments that look not so good, but in retrospect, you will see how much they taught you. Think twice before refusing an opportunity, because it may never return. Always remain honest and say what you think.

Delamaide, IFP Technologies

Be flexible as to where you will live. Develop a thick skin and be firmly committed to going into it, as it will not be easy. At times, we can face opposition to what we do even though we deliver value and everyone uses our products. Some people will blame us for climate change and other things despite all the continual improvements we implement and the changes we have made, and will continue to make, to mitigate our operational errors. Our existence is often seen as a negative. It will take true commitment, like that of a soldier sworn to protect a crowd of protestors who may be opposed to what he or she represents. So too must we have engineers committed to providing petroleum products to the world, as we know that neither solar alone nor wind can provide all of the materials we make from oil or the energy that the world needs. As part of our evolvement, we have found that it does not need to be a choice between one form or another—we need all of it.

Holtzclaw, E&B Natural Resources

There are many industries that you enter, get some training, and then work for a full and rewarding career. The oil field demands that you continue to learn and develop new skills—annually. Don’t think of it as a treadmill but more a daily opportunity; there are few industries that are as enjoyable as the oil field because of this dimension, and you are privileged to be a part of that. Participate, share, teach, learn, study, publish, listen, and mentor throughout your career, but, most of all, enjoy.

Rylance, BP

Take opportunities that come your way so that you can build a broad base of knowledge and be more valuable wherever you work. And volunteer within SPE so that you can meet people who face the same challenges you do and can share learnings and insight that will be of help.

Knode, vPSI Group

I would tell someone that he/she is a soldier engaged in the noble task of energy sustainability for the future of mankind in general.

Marathe, Consultant

The future of hydrocarbon energy will remain bright for many decades to come. The reason is that hydrocarbons are easily converted into high-quality fuels and materials that improve people’s lives. The availability, portability, and versatility of hydrocarbon fuels give it advantages that are unmatched by renewables. An example is natural gas, which will grow in desirability around the world for many decades, enabling clean power that supports economic growth. Another example is plastics, which have enabled innovation in food packaging and made the practice of medicine safer and more effective. The industry will need the brightest minds to continue the work of finding and converting hydrocarbons into fuels and materials that improve people’s lives.

Lehr, BHGE

If you are a new petroleum engineer, then please don’t stop learning. As a petroleum engineer, you will be involved in new technologies and projects, so but don’t be satisfied with routine jobs. Overall, oil and gas technology changes very quickly, and it will be always fun to learn things. Be an active member of SPE; spend the time to read and participate in knowledge-sharing or a technical course. Having a mentor will give you a greater ability to take full advantage of your future career, sharpening your specialties or expertise and developing your network.  

Nengkoda, Saudi Aramco

What would you consider your best moment in the industry, or of what accomplishment are you proudest?

Building a safety culture that led to a much safer working environment, meaning that hundreds of people were able to do their job without the pain of a job-related injury.

Knode, vPSI Group

My best moment was sharing the stage while getting my Honorary Member award with friends I respect and with all those who made it possible. But my journey is not over, because I hope to do more to serve this industry that I love.

Holtzclaw, E&B Natural Resources

I have spent my career solving what have often been described as insurmountable problems. My favorite phrases to hear from others are, “We cannot frac here” or “That cannot be done”—these are red rags to a bull. In my career, I have built teams and implemented solutions that have saved entire developments from ignominy and economic failure. Turning a dud into a spectacular result or finding a diamond in the rough in this business offer all the reward needed.

Rylance, BP

The proudest moment in my career was when I had an opportunity to mentor and coach a young petroleum engineer and that engineer grew into a specialist, an expert in the field, and proud to be a petroleum engineer. That was my “Eureka!” moment. I like to volunteer for anything; I believe by helping others we are giving back to our society. Volunteering isn’t one of the most glamorous jobs, but it is one of the most beneficial and uplifting. In the end, there may be no monetary compensation received, but you feel awesome when you help others.

Nengkoda, Saudi Aramco

I am most proud of how our industry responded in the wake of the Macondo accident. In the aftermath of a very negative, high-profile situation, our industry came together with academia and regulators to craft improved standards for products, safety, and processes. Our industry asked the hard questions, and implemented costly improvements. It did not resist improvement; rather, it embraced improvement. This has enabled our industry to regain respectability in the eyes of most of the public. More importantly, we have learned how to operate in a safer manner, protect lives and the environment, and still achieve cost-effective accomplishments in deepwater drilling and production.  

Lehr, BHGE

Being a reservoir engineer engaged in activities of reservoir monitoring, I have always loved the excitement of the birth of a new project—the ever-­present element of surprise in all such activities—and in working together with diverse disciplines to achieve the goal. I do not know if any other profession calls for so much synergy in diverse activities and specializations as reservoir monitoring.

Marathe, Consultant

Being recognized by your peers, of course, but also doing what you think is best for your clients no matter what.

Delamaide, IFP Technologies

What recent technical achievements in the industry do you find to be remarkable?

There are many, but the most remarkable is our competency in drilling deep wells in deep water. This is practiced from floating, heaving vessels in water depths exceeding 9,000 ft, and at total well depths greater than 20,000 ft below the mud line. Deepwater drilling is enabled by mostly industry-specific innovations.   

Lehr, BHGE

Production of tight oil and gas simply because it challenged something considered almost impossible only a few years back and challenged some established concepts such as peak oil.

Marathe, Consultant

To me, the recent successful application of new technologies is related to our capability to extend the reach of our frontier fields, allowing drilling and production in harsh environments and remote and challenging locations. These technologies have helped transform resources once thought unconventional into conventional ones. As examples, one can consider long-reach drilling, which has enabled access to more resources safely; hydraulic fracturing; the application of nonmetallic materials for oil and gas facilities; and enhanced-oil-recovery technologies to improve recovery rates and extend the life of existing oil fields. All of these technologies are also becoming cost-effective to apply, and make us capable of meeting the world’s energy demands.

Nengkoda, Saudi Aramco

I am in awe of the advances made to drill further offshore and in the very long horizontals being drilled and hydraulically fractured in some of the shale plays. I also think the advances that are being made in water reuse and other sustainable efforts are also the things that will allow us to remain viable for years to come.

Holtzclaw, E&B Natural Resources

As a hydraulic fracturing engineer involved in unconventionals, I never cease to be amazed at the range and scope of innovation being applied and developed in our business on a daily basis. The pendulum never stops moving; stand still and you are out of date. The recent full-scale adoption of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other big data and technology advances is changing the fundamentals of our business.

Rylance, BP

Our industry has witnessed technical achievements in getting deeper and longer in the subsurface. This will change the way we look at subsurface resources in decades to come.

Saputelli, Frontender

Drilling and completing wells with the capability of placing the bit, and therefore the wellbore, where we want it to go to maximize recovery and reduce waste and inefficiency.  

Knode, vPSI Group

Although unconventional development has wreaked havoc in the industry, I am still awed by the change in paradigm from “shale is a seal” to “shale is a reservoir.”

Delamaide, IFP Technologies

What is your response to suggestions that the industry is not as relevant as it once was?

The oil industry will continue to be relevant today and tomorrow. It is so rewarding to work in an industry that affects the whole world on a daily basis in many ways, from improving life expectancy and quality over the last 50 years, to advancing the way we do business and experience geopolitics.

Saputelli, Frontender

I personally think that this perception is not a fair one. In fact, oil will continue to power the world. Whether we like it or not, every year the human race is likely to burn a bit more oil and gas than it did the year before. In absolute numbers, our demand for energy is growing. However, the proportion of oil and gas within the total amount of energy consumed could decline. As the world’s primary source of energy, oil is the lifeblood of economic growth in most countries. Moreover, recent Human Development Index (HDI) data concluded that more oil use signifies more human development.

To remain competitive, oil companies need to reduce their production costs, adopting new technologies and protecting the environment more. Technological innovations within the industry have made production cost-effective under increasingly challenging conditions. In the future, existing fields will operate longer and their yield will be increased by enhanced oil recovery. Unconventional technologies such as hydraulic fracturing will increase. The production of heavy oil from oil sands will become more environmentally friendly and less energy intensive. Automation and digitalization are expected to keep oil and gas competitive in the decades ahead.

Nengkoda, Saudi Aramco

The world is consuming 100 million B/D of oil, and that consumption is growing—only when it is down to zero will we be irrelevant.

Delamaide, IFP Technologies

I believe that in the future, all forms of energy are going to be needed for a planet with so many people. There are too many products and too many things that need oil and gas for it to just vanish. Everyone loves solar and electric cars, but the batteries used are terrible for the environment, and without them, there would be no power at night, and there is still little recycling of the lithium. In addition, the mining of lithium for the batteries is environmentally unfriendly, so there is a compromise to all energy sources, even windmills, which kill a lot of birds. Even hydro power has problems because of the need to dam. I think educated people will realize that we are going to need all forms of energy and that no form is free of negative impact, but through improvements in technology in all of them, we can reduce such effects. For example, we can and should promote the car industry to put out vehicles that get the most mileage from a gallon and reduce gas emissions from cars and trucks. In our fields, we are already controlling methane gas emissions at the wells and at our tanks. By promoting the industry to improve its environmental footprint, we will remain relevant.

Holtzclaw, E&B Natural Resources

This industry is more relevant than ever. In order for humanity to improve living conditions around the world, we need access to energy. We also have the technical expertise to help solve the challenges that are posed by the use of fossil fuels, in part by sequestering CO2.

Knode, vPSI Group

I would challenge that premise by asking: which other industry has contributed so much to cost-effective transportation, medical technology, packaging, chemicals, power, and many other aspects that keep our standard of living high and growing? No other industry that I am aware of has had such a profound impact on improving people’s lives. Is our industry perfect? No. Is our industry constantly improving? Yes.

Lehr, BHGE

Being a citizen of a country that depends very strongly on fossil fuels, I can say the industry is very much as relevant as it ever was, but I am aware that renewable energy sources are picking up quickly. One day the electric car will overtake the internal combustion engine, just as the latter overtook steam, but the spirit of expedition in exploration and production will always remain.

Marathe, Consultant

A former Saudi Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources famously once said, “Thirty years from now, there will be a huge amount of oil—and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” What he failed to mention (or appreciate) is that, just because the Stone Age ended, it did not mean that humanity stopped using stone. It will be the same with oil. While the focus may be elsewhere, oil and gas will continue to be a key commodity on this planet.

Rylance, BP

Meeting the World’s Energy Needs Through Innovation and Insight

01 March 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 3

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