Petroleum engineers search the world for reservoirs containing oil or natural gas. Once discovered, petroleum engineers work with geologists and other specialists to understand the geologic formation and properties of the rock containing the reservoir, determine the drilling methods to be used, and monitor drilling and production operations. They design equipment and processes to achieve the maximum profitable recovery of oil and gas, often using computer models to simulate reservoir performance using different recovery techniques.
Because only a small proportion of oil and gas in a reservoir will flow out under natural forces, petroleum engineers develop and use various enhanced recovery methods. These include injecting water, chemicals, gases, or steam into an oil reservoir to force more of the oil out, and computer-controlled drilling or fracturing to connect a larger area of a reservoir to a single well. Since even the best techniques in use today recover only a portion of the oil and gas in a reservoir, petroleum engineers research and develop technology and methods to increase this proportion and lower the cost of drilling and production operations.
Petroleum engineers held about 12,000 jobs in 1998, mostly in the oil and gas extraction, petroleum refining, and related industries. Employers include major oil companies and hundreds of smaller, independent oil exploration, production, and service companies. Engineering consulting firms and government agencies also employ petroleum engineers. Others work as independent consultants.
Most petroleum engineers work where oil and gas are found. Large numbers are employed in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado, including offshore sites. Many American petroleum engineers also work overseas in oil-producing countries. Because petroleum engineers specialize in the discovery and production of oil and gas, relatively few are employed in the transportation and retail sectors of the oil and gas industry.
Despite a projected decline in employment, opportunities for petroleum engineers should be favorable because the relatively small number of graduates is expected to be in rough balance with the number of job openings. Most opportunities will result from the need to replace petroleum engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Also, petroleum engineers work around the world, and many employers seek U.S.-trained petroleum engineers for jobs in other countries.
Employment of petroleum engineers is expected to decline through 2008 unless oil and gas prices unexpectedly rise enough to encourage increased exploration for oil in the United States. A high price of oil and gas makes it profitable for oil exploration and production firms to seek oil and gas reservoirs, and they will hire petroleum engineers to do so. Low oil prices, however, make it cheaper to purchase needed oil from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which have vast oil reserves. Also, the best exploration opportunities are in other countries because many of the most likely petroleum-producing areas in the United States have already been explored. However, the implementation of new technologies that expand drilling possibilities and improve the performance of reservoirs in the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico may create new opportunities.
Median annual earnings of petroleum engineers were $74,260 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $56,020 and $93,280. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $42,870 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $115,820.
According to a 1999 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelors degree candidates in petroleum engineering received starting offers averaging about $50,400.
(See introduction to the section on engineers for information on working conditions, training requirements, and sources of additional information.)