The blowout school beckons

Petroleum engineering has once again become a popular course of study, perhaps nowhere more than in Louisiana. Russell McCulley looks at what its flagship university is doing to prepare the next generation of oil & gas professionals.

LSU student Mandy Garrett at the school's PERTT Lab.

In some respects, Mandy Garrett is an atypical petroleum engineering student, and not only because she's a woman pursuing a degree in a field dominated by men. She's also the rare Louisiana State University petroleum engineering undergrad who didn't grow up with a family member or mentor in the state's oil & gas industry.

‘That would have made it a lot easier,' says Garrett, a New Orleans-area native who's currently taking junior-level courses at LSU's Craft & Hawkins department of petroleum engineering. ‘I always thought petroleum engineering was something you got into through your family.' But Garrett was intrigued by the program's course description and what she heard from others about the prospects after graduation. ‘I saw the opportunities I'd have with travel, salary, and the ability to enter the workforce with a bachelor's degree,' she says.

Petroleum engineering has topped a handful of recent, highly publicized lists of top-earning bachelor's degrees; the field offers healthy job opportunities in an otherwise stagnant economy, and starting salaries for graduates ranging from $80,000 to $90,000. That news has helped swell applications to major university programs, including LSU's, where enrollment is approaching capacity. The school currently has about 500 undergraduates and 50 graduate students, its highest enrollment since the early 1980s.

Karsten Thompson

LSU and the other Louisiana universities that offer petroleum engineering degrees, including the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, are not alone.

‘All the major programs are pretty much at their capacity,' says Karsten Thompson, chair of the LSU petroleum engineering department. ‘If you look at enrollment trends from 2007 to 2011, there's been an incredible upward trajectory. The only question is, will it continue to go up or will it peak?'

It's a fair question, given the cyclical nature of the oil & gas business. The enrollment and hiring rush of the 1980s came to an abrupt halt when oil prices tanked in the latter part of the decade. By 1990, the domestic industry had shed about 500,000 jobs, or about half the workforce, says LSU associate professor John Rogers Smith.

‘For those of us who live down here on the Gulf Coast, there was hardly a family that wasn't impacted by these huge layoffs,' says Smith, a former Amoco engineer. The severity of the down cycle discouraged many from entering the oil & gas business and contributed to the current so-called ‘great crew change': a swelling of the ranks of older oil & gas workers, and a shortage of mid-career professionals needed to replace them.

The industry has tempered the tendency to overstaff in good times and implement draconian cuts when things go south, says Smith. ‘Relative to the '80s and '90s, the boom and bust cycle has smoothed out,' he says. ‘We started this century with a relatively low number of people in the industry. But since 2000, we've had a moderately steady record of companies hiring, and growing.'

Students at LSU's Petroleum Engineering Research & Technology Transfer Lab.

Among those receiving petroleum engineering degrees at LSU in May 2011, he says about 80% had jobs upon graduation; many others found employment over the summer. Hiring is not up to the level of 2008, before the economic crisis hit, however. ‘Recruitment has slowed since,' Smith says. ‘Students are aware that choice jobs are competitive. But the employment opportunities are good, relative to the rest of the economy.'

Companies have become more selective, Thompson agrees. ‘There are two big drivers when hiring – a good grade point average, and internship experience,' he says. What we see is, the students that have both attributes – a pretty good-to-excellent GPA, and industry experience – are getting multiple offers. They're in high demand.' Others may have to do a little more legwork or seek employment with smaller companies, but the opportunities are there, he says.

One challenge for the department is to maintain quality as enrollment approaches capacity. ‘It's a valuable degree, and we want it to stay that way,' Thompson says.

LSU counts among its advantages the number of hands-on laboratories available for petroleum engineering students through the Petroleum Engineering Research & Technology Transfer Laboratory, or PERTT Lab. The facility features full-scale equipment and instrumentation, including a 5884ft model well for bottom supported drilling operations, a 2787ft model well for floating operations, a drilling fluid mixing and circulating system and a high-pressure, remotely controlled choke manifold system. The PERTT Lab also has a simulator for high-pressure underground gas formation, a full-scale model well diverter system, a 10,000ft drill pipe flow loop, 100ft derrick with a 55ft inclined wellbore analog, two classrooms and a computer simulator classroom. The lab employs students for routine maintenance work and research support.

‘It's a big deal for offshore,' says Smith. ‘LSU was involved with [International Association of Drilling Contractors] since the early seventies, developing full-scale well control training for rig personnel before it was mandatory.'

‘Blowout school'

In 1979, a trio of independent oil companies drilled a commercial well on campus; when the hole came up dry, the companies donated it to the university, where it became the centerpiece of the PERTT Lab. The lab launched in 1981.

Louisiana native Brandon Hartman (Center) was hired by Shell after completing studies at LSU.

‘Industry people called it the blowout school,' Smith says. ‘It was created to provide practical, realistic training for industry personnel and to start doing research focused on well control on floating rigs. It was well equipped and configured to represent a subsea well with a BOP stack 3000ft below the surface, and choke and kill lines coming up. It gave the geometry that you would have in a subsea well that had been shut in with a subsea BOP stack.

‘A lot of procedures were developed using that well,' he says.

The department has since drilled and completed another well configured to represent a 6000ft land well with 95/8in casing and additional wells for natural gas storage and full-scale diverter experiments.

‘We have built classrooms and equipped the lab for other types of research,' Smith continues. ‘Today, it's used by industry for developing and testing new technologies for well control and pressure control, especially technology revolving around managed pressure drilling. Industry can use it to train employees and demonstrate technology to regulators. That's a big chunk of our activity. But our priority is to provide hands-on teaching laboratories for undergrad and graduate students.'

The 2008 recession and slow recovery have hit states especially hard; Louisiana, like most, has imposed deep budget cuts to state agencies and institutions of higher learning, including LSU. The petroleum engineering department ‘isn't getting any special treatment, but we haven't fared any worse than anyone else,' Thompson says. ‘The flip side to that is, we have incredible industry and alumni support for our department. That support has been able to offset a lot of the cuts.'

A longer-term problem, perhaps – and one that programs around the country are facing – is the difficulty staffing faculty positions. With lucrative opportunities in the field discouraging many students from sticking around for a PhD, the potential faculty pool is shrinking, Smith says.

Mandy Garrett is among those eager to finish school and enter the workforce. ‘I would love to go international,' she says. ‘There are so many opportunities – in Norway, other places in Europe, the Middle East, Australia.' The oil & gas industry's ups and downs haven't dampened her enthusiasm. ‘I know this is going to be our primary source of energy for a long time,' she says. ‘There are so many untapped reservoirs out there.' OE

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