How to Define Petroleum Engineering

by Candice Mancini

Petroleum engineering is a science, technology, political issue and career involved with safely developing and exploiting natural gas and crude oil fields. Its roots come from the 19th century, when oil prospecting -- conducted by mining engineers and geologists -- was especially risky. It became clear that the field needed specialized professionals. In 1914, the Technical Committee on Petroleum was created by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. The University of Pittsburgh introduced courses in petroleum technology in 1910 and awarded its first petroleum engineering degree in 1915.

A Risky Business

Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, "Oil!," and the 2007 film adaptation of it, "There Will Be Blood," highlight the challenges of oil prospecting before there was a petroleum engineering field. There were regular explosions, fires, falls down deep wells, and other dangers that took the lives of workers. Extracting the oil efficiently, profitably and safely was a constant challenge.

A Multi-Disciplined Science and Technology

Petroleum engineering involves discovering oil and gas reservoirs; creating and maintaining wells; drilling into wells to extract resources; collecting, treating and storing extracted resources; and closing down wells. These duties must be executed under conditions that promote safety to workers, communities and the environment. Doing so requires in-depth understanding of multiple disciplines, including math, physics, geology, chemistry, technology and environmental science.

A Political Issue

The extraction of resources sometimes creates political and community friction, beginning with disputes over resource ownership. The current practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is especially contentious. Involving pumping high volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to force oil or gas out wells, opponents argue that it pollutes water and ruins the land. Advocates point out that the practice has been going on for over 60 years.

A Career

There were 36,410 petroleum engineers in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than one-half of these worked for the oil and gas extraction industry. Others worked in mining support, architectural and engineering firms, company management and petroleum and coal products manufacturing. The BLS predicts the field will grow by 17 percent, or 5,100 new employees, between 2010 and 2020. The median 2012 salary of petroleum engineers was $130,280, with the lowest 10 percent earning $75,030 and the highest 10 percent earning $183,520.

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