Job Description of a Petroleum Engineer

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Petroleum engineers explore, pump, and process oil and natural gas. While these are nonrenewable resources and their supplies will be depleted one day, much of the world depends on these resources for its energy needs. In the United States, nearly 66 percent of our energy needs are satisfied by oil and natural gas. At best, there is a 75-year supply of large oil and about a 250-year supply of natural gas reserves that can be reached easily and processed relatively inexpensively. While this nation must soon cut back on its massive energy appetite and rely much more heavily upon renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, petroleum and natural gas are central to the nation's social and economic health.

Petroleum engineers use their technical skills to extract and process crude oil and natural gas. These engineers, along with petroleum geologists, drill deep into the earth and use satellite imagery and sophisticated computer models to explore for and find new energy reserves. When a workable reservoir containing oil or natural gas is discovered, petroleum engineers work to find the maximum profitable recovery from the reservoir. At present, only about 32 percent of oil is recovered from reservoirs, so petroleum engineers use their skills to find ways to recover the remaining 68 percent. They use various enhanced recovery methods, such as injecting water, chemicals, or steam into an oil reservoir to force more of the oil out, and horizontal drilling or fracturing to connect more of the gas reservoir to a well. They also estimate the number of wells that can be drilled economically, and simulate future performance using sophisticated computer models.


  • Geologist
  • Geophysicist
  • Chemical Engineer Mining Engineer
  • Environmental Engineer Oceanographer
  • Geographer Computer Programmer

The minimal educational requirement for a career as a petroleum engineer is a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. More than 390 schools offer degrees in engineering. Because there are a relatively small number of petroleum engineers compared with the engineers from other major disciplines, fewer schools have such programs. An engineer trained in one branch of the field can, however, easily work in another area, and many mechanical engineers work in the petroleum field. Also, students majoring in geology, geology engineering, and other earth science programs may be qualified to work as petroleum engineers.

In a typical four-year engineering program, classes during the first two years include mathematics, physics, chemistry, introduction to computing, principles of engineering, and social science and humanities courses. During the final two years, students take more specialized engineering courses, such as well drilling, petroleum production, reservoir analysis, properties of reservoir fluids, advanced geology, and computer programming. Some schools offer a general engineering curriculum where students are not able to choose a concentration until graduate school. In addition, some institutions offer a five-year master's degree program.

Graduate training is becoming more of the norm for professionals working in the energy resources field. Many petroleum engineers obtain either an advanced degree in petroleum engineering or an MBA degree in order to work in management and sales positions.


All 50 states and the District of Columbia require registration for engineers who work affects life, health, or property, or who offer their services to the public. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) offers the Professional Engineer (PE) license. Attainment of the license is based upon the acquisition of a engineering degree from an ABET-approved institution, successful completion of the Engineering-in-Training examination, four years of relevant work experience, and the passage of a state examination. Licenses are generally transferable between states. Contact the ABET, listed at the end of this chapter, for further information.

The Association of Engineering Geologists also provides the designation of Certified Engineering Geologist. An applicant must demonstrate considerable experience before being able to take the registration examination, and in some states must be a registered geologist before taking the examination. For further information on all of the above certification programs, contact the individual organization listed at the end of this chapter.


Most petroleum engineers work where oil and gas are found. They work at drilling sites to oversee the application of new drilling technologies. At these sites, petroleum engineers have access to offices and computer equipment. Large numbers of these engineers are employed in the United States in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and California, as well as in the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, the North Sea, and many other ocean-based locations.

Because drilling is done in shifts, around the clock, petroleum engineers can be working during any shift. They usually work a 40-hour week. During times of peak oil and gas output or critical drilling phases, they may be required to work more hours. Explosions and fires are hazards that petroleum engineers may confront. Those working on ocean oil platforms are exposed to the greatest risks because they are isolated and rough seas sometimes wreak havoc on these structures.


Petroleum engineers work primarily in the petroleum industry and closely allied fields. Employers include major oil companies and hundreds of smaller, independent oil exploration, production, and service companies. They also work for engineering consulting firms, oil field services, and equipment suppliers; still others are independent consultants. Because petroleum engineers specialize in the discovery and production of oil and gas, relatively few are employed in the refining, transportation, and retail sectors of the oil and gas industry.

Relatively few petroleum engineers work in government. In the federal government they work primarily at the Department of Energy, while some work for state agencies in oil-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Ohio. Petroleum engineers also teach and do research in colleges and universities.
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