What’s the future of petroleum engineering? Because of green energy, petroleum engineering as a career has many future unknowns.
To better understand these unknowns, I’m going to go over 11 consideration points. Some good and some bad.
We’ll then uncover if the future of petroleum engineering is all doom and gloom.
Important Note: fossil fuels are coal, crude oil, and natural gas. These fuel sources were all made from buried plant and animal fossils from millions of years ago.
Now, petroleum engineers focus on extracting this oil and natural gas from Earth for fuel.
#1 The green energy movement
The world has become more aware of the negative effects of burning fossil fuels.
More specifically, how fossil fuels are polluting and destroying environments. Even more, how burning fossil fuels is causing climate change.
California recently set the goal of 100% clean electric power by 2045. This means California will soon rely completely on zero-emission energy sources.
More states will soon follow California’s lead. The movement is certainly picking up steam.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, plug-in vehicles displaced 323 million gallons of gasoline in 2018 in the U.S. This calculates to 0.25% of all the gas used in the U.S. that year.
Doesn’t sound like much, but a trend is forming
As an electrical engineer in California, I’m clearly seeing the shift in demand. With every passing month, I’m doing more renewable energy and battery projects.
This is from private companies, all the way to large utilities.
Also, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, more and more electric cars are on the roads.
This has all weighed heavily on the fossil fuel industry giants. The industry has gone from growth to negative growth.
But, companies like British Petroleum (BP) are taking action today. They’ve set a net-zero carbon target by 2050.
#2 Reality of weaning off fossil fuels
We can’t flip a switch and go from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It doesn’t work that way.
There are many variables at play in the energy sector.
That said, in the past 30 years we’ve weaned off coal. In this transition, we’ve used more natural gas to pick up the energy slack.
Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel compared to crude oil. Plus, it’s found in huge quantities.
My point is, there are steps. It’s a gradual transition.
Even more, India and China have a growing middle class. These people will want to become mobile and electric cars aren’t an option.
Also, many other countries are becoming developed. By default, petroleum is cheaper when regulations don’t exist.
What’s more, petroleum is easier to deploy at scale. ‘
In short, this transition is a global effort.
#3 Renewable energy and batteries
As technology improves, renewable energy sources become more appealing.
Especially as energy efficiency increases and renewable energy prices drop.
Look at California’s bold 2045 goal alone. This is spurring companies to constantly iterate over existing tech.
Also, the below shown U.S. Energy Information graphs take a look into the future.
The writing is on the wall for the fossil fuel industry. And every tech advancement is another nail in the coffin.
Let’s take another step forward and look at coal versus renewables. The U.S. Energy Information Administration graph shows the consumption intersection of the two.
#4 New generation’s view on fossil fuels
Millennials and Generation Z were brought up with a negative view of fossil fuels.
This by default will push many of them away from joining the industry. They don’t want the public to label them as a part of the problem.
A lot of the public views the oil and gas industry negatively because of “Climate Change”. Then throw in social media and you have a firestorm.
Imagine the hashtag #ClimateDestroyer with your name tagged. Not a good look!
Now, I get it. There’s nothing rational about this level of hate.
Especially considering fossil fuels were a stepping stone to renewable energy. I attribute a lot of the amazing progress of mankind to fossil fuels.
Without fossil fuels, we wouldn’t even be talking about renewable energy sources today.
Hostile work environments of petroleum engineers
Future work will probably be in hostile environments. As it is today, the work environments aren’t anything to write home about.
But now, throw in the fact that we’ll need to travel to farther corners of the globe to extract more fuel.
I can’t see this being appealing to the younger generation.
Especially, when the alternative is lush office jobs. For example, a job working at Google with countless perks.
#5 Existing reliance on fossil fuels
So much of what we do today heavily rely on fossil fuels.
To put it another way, fossil fuel has too much forward momentum. Like an aircraft carrier, we can’t instantly turn our energy choice.
Look no further than the transportation industry. Here’s a list of vehicles that to this day heavily rely on oil:
- Private planes
- Cruise ships
- Cargo ships
- Military equipment
Clearly, fossil fuels are hard to replace. They’re the perfect mobile fuel when you consider the following:
- Energy density
- Refill time
- Initial production cost
- Global existing infrastructure
To scale renewables to the same degree as petroleum will take many decades.
Sure, electric car sales will only increase over time. Thus, fuel usage for cars may reduce some.
But, demand for fossil fuels for the air industry and heating will not plummet anytime soon.
Reliance on plastics
Even if we somehow move all modes of transportation off from fossil fuels, we still need plastic.
Next time you go shopping, look at how much plastic you bring home with you. Then look inside your own home at all the plastic.
My point is, we heavily rely on plastics.
The manufacturing of most plastics comes from the petrochemical industry.
Unless we find plastic alternatives, the demand for fossil fuels will remain. Then again, there’s huge pressure to find biodegradable solutions to replace plastic.
Point is, despite what many think, fossil fuels still dominate the market. Below is a graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing the continued demand.
#6 Petroleum industry is highly cyclic
The oil industry has major booms and busts. It’s a cycle that happens every 5 to 10 years.
Before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the last bust was between 2014 – 2017.
When this happens, oil companies reduce overhead costs by laying off staff. This leads to low demand.
Also, a lot of times supply stays ahead of demand. This drives prices down, and companies hire fewer engineers.
Even more, as the market for oil and gas shrinks, companies go into maintenance mode. This means maximizing current production.
At the same time, not spending on exploration and innovation. This further reduces demand.
In a time where we prize stability, a highly cyclic market may be too much for some people. Especially, if you just want to collect a paycheck and pay your bills without a fuss.
#7 Challenges within the oil industry
Many challenges that never existed before have sprung up for the oil industry. These challenges alone paint a bleak future for petroleum engineering.
Oil extraction difficulty
Moving into the future, the industry will face new challenges.
We’ve already extracted the easily found oil on Earth.
So we’ll now need to travel deeper and farther on Earth for fossil fuels. This requires greater innovation combined with exploration.
These difficulties have turned into another win for renewable energy. Especially as the cost for renewables is falling.
As it is, the cost of fossil fuel extraction is high. Plus, oil extraction is not very efficient, to begin with.
New regulations on oil extraction
When on a level playing field, fossil fuel costs are cheaper than renewables.
But regulations placed against fossil fuels, and renewable subsidies have been game-changers.
Stricter laws have made fossil fuel generation expensive.
Drilling today requires extra care and detailed planning. These are all future difficulties.
That said, I’m thankful for the work of petroleum engineers in the past and present. We live in a transitional period today with renewable energy.
But to restate, without petroleum engineers, we wouldn’t even have this discussion.
They indirectly ignited the 100% renewable energy dreams we now have today. All types of engineering stand tall on the shoulders of petroleum engineers.
#8 Aging baby boomers
A large percentage of petroleum engineers are baby boomers.
Many of these engineers will soon retire. Or, employers will force them to retire because of economic downturns.
Since we still heavily rely on fossil fuels, we need replacement engineers.
Not only replacement engineers but talented engineers. This is even more important today, because of all the new industry challenges.
A lot of risk goes into developing oil fields. Even more today, because of how difficult drill locations only remain.
#9 Versatility of engineering degrees
A degree these days doesn’t pigeonhole you to only do one type of work.
That’s why I recommend getting a non-petroleum engineering degree. You can then still apply and work in the petroleum industry.
I know a handful of people who’ve done just this. So, I don’t understand why anyone would get a petroleum engineering degree anymore.
And yes, you can flip my argument around. There are tens of thousands of petroleum engineers who have switched industries.
But why make your work harder than it needs to be? Many other types of engineering exist that are much more versatile.
For example, a mechanical engineering degree is one of the most flexible degrees. It has applications in almost every industry you could imagine.
While a petroleum degree is specific to one industry. Not only that, it’s an industry that goes through booms and busts.
Let’s say you work in the oil industry. Then fossil fuels finally phase-out to a greater degree.
Then without missing a beat, you can go find yourself a non-fossil fuel job.
Again, I’m not saying you can’t do the same with a petroleum engineering degree. But, it’d be easier as the optics of your degree are on your side.
#10 Petroleum engineering applications beyond oil and gas
I’ve mentioned how the degree isn’t broad in scope. But, the drilling applications have scope beyond fossil fuels.
One alternative application is geothermal, which is a renewable energy source.
Important Note: geothermal energy uses the internal heat of the Earth. Parts of Earth have a build-up of magma pools.
We then take this heat energy from Earth to heat up water.
The water turned into steam then spins a turbine. A generator connected to the turbine then generates electricity.
In this application, we pump water underground onto hot rocks to create steam.
Petroleum engineers can manage this work. Because they understand geology, drilling, and fluid flow.
This is an untapped industry, with a very bright future ahead. We’re far from maximizing geothermal energy sources.
#11 New tech advancements in the oil and gas industry
New tech will make drilling and production cheaper. Also, it’ll reduce pollution.
So even as renewable energy advances, fossil fuel tech will improve.
This is great, considering developing nations will heavily rely on fossil fuels.
Unless a global initiative is set up, I don’t see a reason for these other nations not to leverage fossil fuels.
All first-world countries today leveraged fossil fuels in their industrial age. It’d be hypocritical now if fossil fuels were “banned” without alternative plans offered.
All in all, new tech will prolong our dependence on fossil fuels. While also opening new jobs in many corners of the globe.
Plus, reducing the pain from continued fossil fuel consumption.
“What’s the future of petroleum engineering?” wrap up
Petroleum engineering isn’t going anywhere in the next 50 years. Despite people screaming the sky is falling.
That said, do I see another huge oil boom with everyone getting crazy rich? Probably not.
I can’t see the demand ever greatly increasing again.
Rather, the demand will only dwindle overtime. This is why I can’t recommend anyone to dive headfirst into this career.
You better have a deep passion for the work with amazing grades from a top tier school. In other words, you don’t want to do anything else besides this career. Also, you’re okay with a historically unstable career.
Even then, I recommend you get a mechanical or chemical engineering degree. It’s better insurance when the market goes bust.
You’ll get the same jobs, but have greater opportunities outside of oil. It’s a no-brainer with the future of petroleum engineering in limbo.
What’s the future of petroleum engineering in your eyes? Do you think fossil fuels will ever be completely phased out?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.