High price of oil spurs demand for petroleum engineers

A petroleum worker walks through a Libyan oil refinery in Al Brega, Libya. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and petroleum exports account for 95 percent of the country's export earnings.

BOB MOON: Well then, no need to explain this next item, now that we've established all those cars and trucks are guzzling all that fuel. Energy companies are hunting for oil and gas in increasingly far flung places: Hundreds of miles off the Gulf Coast, deeper than ever beneath the sea and in shale rock formations thousands of feet underground. Squeezing out those resources often requires new technologies and special skills -- which has oil companies prospecting for fresh talent.

From KUT in Austin, Texas, Nathan Bernier reports.


NATHAN BERNIER: Demand is so high these days, students with degrees in petroleum engineering command some of the highest starting salary of graduates in any field, according to a recent survey.

KELLY RANKIN: Coming out as a female, Ph.D. from America, I can probably get at least six figures when I start -- which seems ridiculous, because I've had no actual work experience.

Kelly Rankin is entering her second year of the Ph.D. petroleum engineering program at the University of Texas. She's learning how to read rock formations, locate drill sites, and tap reservoirs of crude. But her main focus is how to extract the sticky, heavy oil buried in the tar sands of Western Canada.

RANKIN: Normal, light oil that you find out in West Texas, is basically like pouring water. Heavy oil would be like having a jar of molasses. I look forward to going and actually seeing a functioning heavy oil field in Canada. That would be very exciting for me.

A decade ago, that kind of unconventional energy source cost more to product than companies can make selling it. But with today's higher gas prices and increased demand in countries like China and India, the economic equation has flipped.

Hal Salzman is a labor market researcher at Rutgers University. He helped lead a survey of petroleum engineers earlier this year.

HAL SALZMAN: When the market -- indicated it was looking for students in this field, they came in droves.

This spring, nearly 1,200 students received degrees in petroleum engineering, up from less than 500 in 2003, and competition to get into a program is fierce.

TAD PATZEK: We set the bar there incredibly high.

Tad Patzek runs the petroleum and geoscience program at the University of Texas, one of the largest in the country.

PATZEK: And we try to cut off students, at, you know, 3.8 or so GPA, so we're getting really top students.

Kelly Rankin entered her Ph.D. program with a grade point average of 4.0. She knew she always wanted to be an engineer, and gravitated to the petroleum side of things because it has a bit of everything -- physics, chemistry, geology. She knows the profession carries a stigma, given the link between fossil fuels and climate change. But she says until an alternative becomes widely available, people will continue to rely on gasoline cars.

RANKIN: Our economy would collapse and no longer cease to function if we didn't have oil, so -- I'm willing to be the dirty person who has to get the job done.

Tad Patzek at the University of Texas says the high-salaries awaiting Rankin and her cohorts come with a trade-off. Petroleum engineers regularly spend months working in some of the most desolate places on earth.

In Austin, I'm Nathan Bernier for Marketplace.

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