What is a Petroleum Engineer?

Petroleum engineering is the field of engineering that deals with the exploration, extraction, and production of oil. It also increasingly deals with the production of natural gas.

A petroleum engineer (also known as a gas engineer) determines the most efficient way to drill for and extract oil and natural gas at a particular well. They oversee drilling operations and resolve any operating problems. They also decide how to stimulate an underperforming well. They develop new drilling tools and techniques, and find new ways to extract remaining oil and gas from older wells.

What Does a Petroleum Engineer Do?

Petroleum engineers evaluate oil and gas reservoirs to determine their profitability. They examine the geology of future drilling sites to plan the safest and most efficient method of drilling and recovering oil. They manage the installation, maintenance, and operation of equipment. They also manage the completion of wells. During production they monitor yield and develop modifications and stimulation programs to enhance it. They're also responsible for solving operational problems that may arise.

Since current extraction techniques only recover part of the available oil or gas in a reservoir, petroleum engineers also develop new drilling and extraction methods.

Petroleum engineers usually specialize in a particular aspect of drilling operations. For example, reservoir engineers determine the best way to recover the most oil or gas from a particular deposit, and estimate how much that will be. Drilling engineers figure out the best way to drill a particular well so that it's economically efficient and safe for people and the environment. Completions engineers decide the best way to finish building a well so that the oil or gas flows upwards from the ground. Production engineers monitor production and figure out how to coax more out of an under-producing well.

Petroleum engineers are vital to today's economies. They make the drilling process safer for people, communities, wildlife, and the environment. They also make it more efficient, and prices more affordable for customers. They ensure compliance with best practices, industry standards, and environmental and safety regulations, and contribute to energy independence.

Where Does a Petroleum Engineer Work?

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of petroleum engineers (53%) worked in oil and gas extraction as of 2012. 14% provided support activities for mining. Another 7% were employed in architectural, engineering, and related services. 6% were involved in the manufacture of petroleum and coal products, and another 6% were employed as company managers.

Petroleum engineers spend most of their time in offices or laboratories, but must also work at drilling sites, often for extended periods. Fieldwork may require extensive travel, including overseas. They may work a significant amount of extra hours while traveling. They commonly work on 84-hour rotations while at a work site.

What Is the Average Petroleum Engineer Salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for petroleum engineers was $130,280 in May 2012. Most were employed in oil and gas extraction, where they earned an average of $144,810. Company managers earned $143,240. Those employed in architectural, engineering, and related services made $121,790. Those working in petroleum and coal products manufacturing earned $120,440, and workers providing support activities for mining brought in an average of $101,800.

However, the Society of Petroleum Engineers' 2012 salary survey reports that engineers involved in drilling made an average of $212,123. Those involved in completions earned $197,739. Engineers working on production made $194,481, while reservoir engineers earned $187,780.

StateTotal EmploymentBottom 25%Median SalaryTop 75%
Alabama90$103,530$125,390$149,760
Alaska770$106,300$140,060-
Arizona-$85,200$95,230$143,740
Arkansas80$60,360$106,770$161,150
California2,120$94,270$112,620$140,120
Colorado1,660$98,880$130,960$176,200
Georgia30---
Kansas-$104,070$147,200-
Louisiana1,650$92,500$118,510$163,490
Michigan110$87,080$107,020$133,040
Mississippi280$84,550$113,580$139,290
Montana130$43,900$97,970$133,060
New Mexico300$55,480$79,200$106,350
Ohio210$76,650$95,730$137,520
Oklahoma3,780$92,690$136,350-
Pennsylvania600$70,260$98,590$134,240
Texas19,660$105,870$143,210-
Utah200$65,010$85,170$107,930
Virginia1,050$108,310$133,070$183,130
Washington190$105,880$126,410$153,220
West Virginia170$74,710$87,890$119,510
Wyoming530$74,110$101,610$132,200

Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes172171.htm)

What Is the Job Demand for Petroleum Engineers?

Jobs in petroleum engineering are projected to grow 26% from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster than average. Growth will be dependent on oil prices, since higher prices make more complex drilling worthwhile. Retirements of older workers and the need to ensure compliance with regulations when drilling in deep water will open up new opportunities.

What Petroleum Engineer Careers are Available?

Some petroleum engineers eventually advance to managerial positions. Others use their technical knowledge to assist customers as sales engineers. Some may start their own businesses that provide services to larger oil companies.

How Do I Get a Petroleum Engineer Degree?

These positions require a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering. These academic programs include classroom, lab, and field studies. They commonly focus on engineering basics, geology, and thermodynamics. Work experience gained through cooperative education programs that award academic credit for job experience is also highly valued by employers. A solid foundation in math and science is excellent preparation for college studies.

Graduate degrees can provide an edge in the job market, and are generally required for positions at universities, or other research positions. Formal training may be provided to new recruits at larger companies. Consider a Master's in Biotechnology to further your career.

Petroleum Engineer - Related Degrees

Petroleum Engineer Licensure

Engineers who offer their services directly to the public must be licensed as professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally requires:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

College graduates may take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam immediately. Engineers who pass this exam are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After gaining four years of work experience, EITs and EIs can go on to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to qualify for licensure.

Several states require engineers to participate in professional development activities in order to keep their licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as that state's requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.

Professionals can also pursue optional certification through the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Certification requires Society membership, passing an exam, possession of an undergraduate engineering degree in petroleum engineering or a related science, and at least four years of experience and training in engineering.

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Petroleum Engineers Have?

  • The Society of Petroleum Engineers is dedicated to spreading technical knowledge about petroleum engineering and improving the skills of members through professional development. It administers optional professional certification.
  • The National Society of Professional Engineers is the authority on licensure, ethics, and practice in the engineering profession. It hosts a job board, provides salary information, offers a mentoring program, and provides resume writing services. It also organizes six interest groups for construction, government, higher education, industry, private practice, and young engineers.