An R&D Career in the Energy Industry
I appreciate the invitation by SPE to share a few thoughts on my experiences over the last 30 years as a research scientist in the energy industry. It has been a very rewarding career for me, and I hope that the following insights will be of benefit to those who might be considering a career in research and development, or R&D.
A career in R&D is certainly not for everyone. But for those to whom it has appeal, there are many different niches that I have seen over the years into which someone can fit their personal interests, talents, and strengths. There are currently three major venues for a career in R&D in the energy industry:
- University or technical institution academic programs that are working primarily on “fundamental” research
- Oil- or gas-operating-company or government-sponsored research centers or institutes that are working on a combination of both fundamental and process- or field-specific “applied” research studies
- Commercial research institutes or service-company-affiliated laboratories that are working on mostly applied or field-specific/fit-for-purpose research studies or projects on a for-profit or cost-recovery basis
Each of these venues has particular advantages and disadvantages. Although my personal experience has primarily been in the third category, I have had the opportunity over the years to have close association with many individuals in the first two categories as well.
University or Technical Institution Research
This is the perfect location for the scientist who is interested in a high degree of freedom to research new methods and technologies that interest them the most. In general, an advanced degree (DSc or PhD) would be required for this career selection. I have found that students who thrive in the university research lifestyle, while obtaining their advanced degree, are those most suited to this career path. Usually, some teaching, tutorial, and graduate-student responsibility may also be involved in these positions, as well as fundraising for certain projects. It is important that all these factors be considered in the selection of this career path. Those who choose the academic research path often base their decision on lifestyle: greater research freedom and a high level of professional respect, in exchange for a lower financial compensation than could be earned in the commercial sector as a whole. But for many, the choice is a clear and easy one. Although I have worked primarily as a research engineer at a commercial service company, I have had the opportunity to be a part-time professor at the University of Calgary for many years as well, and have found the combination of teaching and interaction with students, combined with my mainstream research activities, to be very rewarding.
Government or Oil and Gas Operating Company Research Centers
In the 1970s and 1980s, most major oil and gas operating companies had their own research centers where a combination of some pure, but mostly applied research—focused on the company’s producing assets—was conducted. Many innovative and exciting technologies were developed at companies such as Marathon, Arco, Conoco, Sohio, and others. With industry consolidation in the latter part of the 1980s and 1990s came downsizing or closure of many of these operating-company research centers. Although some major multinational oil and gas companies still have research centers (Total, ExxonMobil, and Eni, for example) the relative availability of positions in this category has dropped significantly, and much of the work has shifted to contract-type research centers and to service companies.
Government-sponsored research institutes have had greater durability, and most countries with significant oil and gas producing assets often have one or more government-sponsored energy research agencies.
Working in this type of environment often results in a focus on developing specific technologies to exploit oil or gas reserves that may be present in the operating company’s portfolio or within the country’s boundaries, and less time spent on “fundamental” research. Although there may be less freedom in selecting the subject of research, the lifestyle can still be highly rewarding because in general, funding restraints may be less restrictive than an academic institution. Also, one can avoid the distractions of teaching, administrative matters, and fundraising that may be unappealing to some. One is also able to see the full-scale development and implementation of the research as it is taken from conceptual design in the laboratory to real-world application in the field, which can be immensely satisfying. This sector has in the past been subject to fluctuations in staffing levels, as changes in the relative health of the energy industry or government funding levels occur, so the potential long-term job security may be less than that at an academic institution—even though remuneration would likely be appreciably higher.
Commercial Research Institutes or Service Company Research Institutes
More than 30 years of my career has been spent primarily in this area. From 1978 to 2004, along with several partners, I worked as an engineer and ultimately owner of Hycal Energy Research Laboratories, a private, contract-based research center based in Calgary. We sold this company in 2004 to Weatherford International, where it has been incorporated into a worldwide portfolio of research and analytical laboratories. I am still employed as the director of flow-in-porous-media research and as a worldwide technology adviser for Weatherford.
When industry activity levels are low, companies spend more time and resouces on applied R&D to optimize and more cheaply exploit their existing asset.
Working in this area is perhaps the most restrictive in terms of ability to choose the types of research project one works on, as the company operates on a fee-for-service basis (or to promote and exploit the market for its products, if it is a service company). The majority of the work centers on applied research studies that are requested by clients to solve certain challenges that they face with their oil or gas producing assets. However, the work also allows exposure to a tremendously wide range of applications, as one deals with companies operating around the globe that have a wide variety of reservoirs and associated challenges. I have had the opportunity, over the last 30 years, to work on a very large array of applied research projects in areas such as formation damage during drilling and completion operations, heavy-oil thermal and nonthermal recovery, cold production of heavy oil and foamy oils, gas-miscible flooding, chemical and microbial enhanced-oil-recovery methods, carbon capture and sequestration, numerical simulation, equation-of-state modeling, mathematical modeling of flow in porous media, and production engineering. A number of these projects have spawned in-house or other applied research projects, and this has provided fertile ground for numerous technical publications (more than 250), often done jointly with the operating companies who sponsored the research and patents on the basis of the work conducted in these areas. Once again, the health of this sector depends to a certain extent on the health of the industry, but my experience has been that when activity levels are low, companies spend more time and resources on applied R&D to optimize and more cheaply exploit their existing asset.
My experiences in this area are obviously somewhat biased, since for the majority of my career I have been principal/owner of the research institute at which I was employed. This has imparted a higher degree of control over my destiny than some others might enjoy in a similar capacity. However, my experiences with other professionals with whom I have worked, in our own company and within other service company research institutes, show similar levels of satisfaction in this sector, owing in part to the opportunities for a diverse scope of projects and international travel (for those who may be interested in that). These are opportunities one may not find in the other two career streams.
Whatever the career path that you choose, there continues to be tremendous activity in the R&D area for oil and gas exploitation, especially as the industry moves to development of more challenging reservoirs in ultralow-permeability gas shales, unconventional oil and gas reserves, and new ultrahigh-temperature and -pressure deep reservoirs. I have no hesitation in stating that long-term career potential in the industry continues to exist in the R&D field for the next several decades at a minimum, so there is no shortage of opportunities for individuals wishing to make their own mark in R&D.
Brant Bennion has more than 30 years of experience in the research areas of multiphase flow in porous media, formation damage, phase behavior, drilling, completions, and enhanced-oil- recovery operations. Bennion has been a Distinguished Lecturer for both the SPE and the Petroleum Society of Canada (now SPE Canada) on formation damage. He lectures as an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, is the author/coauthor of approximately 250 technical papers and has lectured extensively in more than 40 countries in recent years. He is employed by Weatherford Laboratories (formerly Hycal Energy Research Laboratories) and currently is director of the flow-in-porous-media group. Bennion is a registered professional engineer with the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta and holds BSc and PhD degrees in chemical and petroleum engineering from the University of Calgary.