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Professionals comment on working in the Oil and Gas Industry

James A. Gibbs, Five States Energy Company
Robert K. Merrill, UNOCAL Corporation
Elijah White, Jr., Exxon Company USA


James A. Gibbs
Five States Energy Company
Dallas, Texas

Almost everyone enjoys puzzles of one kind or another. Geologists are challenged to solve some of the most fascinating and complex puzzles of all, the mysteries of our planet. Petroleum geologists are rewarded, not only by the satisfaction of learning some of the Earth's secrets, but occasionally by the thrill of creating wealth by discovering new reserves of oil and gas.

More than most, the profession of petroleum geology accommodates a wide range of personality types, interests and personal abilities. Some geologists enjoy participating in large projects that may require months or years to bring to fruition, and that utilize specialized knowledge and skills of team members in a corporate environment. Other geologists work as independent explorationists or consultants, and revel in the freedom of lifestyle and choice of activities that such a decision allows. Still oth ers combine an interest in commercial activities with their love of science, to create new business ventures or corporate structures.

Many factors can influence one's career choice. Considerations include whether one prefers research or operations, indoor or outdoor environments, domestic or foreign locations, sedentary or physical activities, individual or team projects.

Traditionally, major oil companies have employed most of the new geoscience graduates. The majors offered good salaries and excellent training and provided a foundation of knowledge and corporate culture, which served both companies and employees well. Many geologists devoted their careers to the company that first employed them, but some perceived alternative opportunities and departed to work with smaller companies or as consultants or independents.

In recent years the trend has been for the major companies to expand activities overseas, reducing the scope of their U.S. operations. The result has been to hire fewer new U.S graduates, and to select those with particular technical or language skills .

For a geologist approaching graduation, the decision to commit one's future to petroleum may be a difficult one. Securing initial employment may be challenging, and getting "up to speed" for those not hired by major companies may take time an d special effort. For those who do enter petroleum geology, however, the future should be rewarding. The world's expanding population will use ever increasing amounts of energy, and almost all experts believe that those energy requirements most likely wil l be met by hydrocarbons. Individuals and companies who help satisfy mankind's appetite for petroleum should fare well.

The practice of petroleum geology is much different today than it was a decade or more ago. Geology is increasingly more quantitative, more dependent on computers, more global in application, and more integrated with geophysics, engineering and other s ciences. These trends are likely to continue and to accelerate in future years. Just as the successful individuals and companies today are those that have been innovative and adaptive in the past, the successful entities of tomorrow will be those that are alert to changes and that incorporate new concepts and technologies into their plans.

For the reader still in college who may be considering a career in petroleum, some general suggestions may be helpful.

  • First, become proficient in the use of computers. Learn the applications for storing, transmitting, manipulating, and presenting geological data.
  • Learn all you can about geophysics and engineering. Although those fields may not be your primary interest, knowing enough about them to participate in team projects with specialists will be helpful.
  • Learn a second language. Successful operations in non-U.S. countries may depend on your knowledge of the language and customs of other cultures.
  • Seek work as an intern of a company. Many employers choose their permanent employees from the pool of candidates they've utilized as interns during the college period.
  • Learn enough about the fundamentals of finance and accounting so that if you choose to be an independent or consultant you can manage your profession or practice.
For those willing to face the challenges of being a petroleum geologist, the rewards of the profession are many.
  • The growth, welfare, and national security of the U.S. and other countries depend on abundant, reliable and affordable sources of energy. The work of a petroleum geologist contributes to the universal betterment of mankind.
  • A petroleum geologist creates wealth. Most businesses and professions simply "rearrange" its ownership, transferring it from one to another. A new oil or gas field creates a new source of assets for the country in which it's located and som etimes for those associated with its discovery. Even modest success at finding and producing oil and gas can provide a geologist with a comfortable income and a lifestyle compatible with one's particular desires and standards.
  • Most petroleum geologists enjoy their work and the people with whom they routinely interact. Your associates will generally be persons of high moral character and personal values. Professional organizations and associations provide avenues for profes sional growth and socialization.
  • Each day offers the opportunity to work on "solving the puzzle". Few days are like those that precede it. The challenges, projects, and tasks of petroleum geology are almost infinitely diverse, and can provide a lifetime of interest, study, entertainment and possible fortune.

Few other professions offer as much.

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Robert K. Merrill
UNOCAL Corporation
Sugar Land, Texas

Geoscientists play a key role in the management of our natural resources. As a petroleum geologist, my job is to identify where oil and gas accumulations occur and, together with our geophysicists and engineers, to determine the best way to produce the se energy resources. Oil and gas are naturally occurring hydrocarbons that are generated from organic matter deposited with sediment, move with water through the rocks, and accumulate in a trap when structure and hydrodynamic conditions are favorable. The skills necessary for this work are technical, creative and analytical; anyone aspiring to be a geologist, regardless of what field of geology they wish to practice, must develop these skills. Communication, although often ignored, is also an essential pa rt of the profession of geology. Finally, an understanding of economics is important.

Prior to college a young person needs to pursue science and mathematics courses that are appropriate for the college-bound student. An aspiring scientist should take advantage of every opportunity to develop and communicate ideas. In addition, it is im portant to develop critical observation skills. My interest in geology began as a youth roaming the hills of Vermont, a venue with glacial lake and stream deposits seemingly out of place on the hillsides and new boulders to be picked in the fields each Sp ring. Be aware of your surroundings; seemingly incongruous relationships can be explained with an understanding of geology.

As a professional geologist I have found that we never know whence ideas and solutions will come. Because of this a broad background in geology is essential. Coursework should include physical and historical geology, mineralogy, optical mineralogy, sed imentary geology, paleontology, geomorphology, structural geology, geophysics, geochemistry and preferably field camp or field work. Chemistry, biology, physics and calculus are also important, and I have found the engineering courses I took important to my career. These subjects address technical skills. Beyond this training, every opportunity should be taken to develop analytical skills. Statistics and the tools to apply statistics and other analytical techniques are routinely applied to geological prob lems.

A master's degree is essential for a career in geology. It is here that you can begin to specialize in your interests. Possibly even more important, a master's program strengthens analytical, creative and communication skills which are essential to suc ceed as a geologist, building on the technical background developed as an undergraduate. A Ph.D. is necessary for research but not critical for most industry jobs. Graduate work requires solving a scientific problem, formulating a research program, conduc ting the program and communicating the results through a thesis and through oral presentations. These skills are critical to succeeding as a professional geologist when dealing with clients as a company geologist or as a consultant.

Geoscientists contribute to society in many ways. Opportunities for geoscientists historically have been concentrated in the extractive industries of mineral and energy resources. In addition, opportunities exist in the environmental fields where there is a need to manage the environmental pressures from expanding resource usage, i.e., land, water, minerals and energy. I have been in the Petroleum Industry for over twenty years, where job opportunities have changed from being concentrated in the United States with major companies to the current situation where opportunities are more varied, and many jobs take an international flavor as energy major companies move exploration and production programs overseas. Still, the major centers for the oil industr y are Houston and Dallas, with smaller centers in New Orleans, Lafayette or Midland, where production is managed.

Natural resources such as metals and oil and gas are commodities that fluctuate in price. These fluctuations are driven by society's need for these resources. The emphasis of the geoscientist has changed from focusing on finding assets to tying the ass ets to markets via transportation corridors. In other words, to be successful, it is not enough to just find the resources as we have in the past; today, we must monetize the resources we find. A basic understanding of economics and markets contributes to our ability to monetize the resources.

The unfortunate part of commodity fluctuations is that the job market fluctuates as well. These fluctuations cause companies to hire geoscientists in times of expanding markets and rising prices and reduce staff in times of shrinking markets and plungi ng markets. These fluctuations affect geoscientists in environmental as well as resource jobs. The uncertainty of fluctuating job markets is mitigated somewhat by the strong, broad background in geological principles acquired as a student and with continu ing education as a professional.

What is the advantage of being a geologist in the face of such market fluctuations? I find the career challenging, stimulating and fun. The challenge of analyzing all types of geologic and geophysical data and putting the results together into a cohere nt framework called a prospect is exciting. My ideas are tested as I stand on the rig floor watching the samples come to the surface. Sometimes I am right, more often wrong, but the excitement continues as I go back to analyze the results and find new pla ces to drill.

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Elijah White, Jr.
Exxon Company USA
Houston, Texas

Individuals considering pathways in geoscience-related fields are often asked 'why?' and typically find the answer somewhat difficult to communicate. I believe that geoscientists' interests in nature and naturally occurring events begin with an innate thirst for knowledge of the Earth and all that makes it whole. The kid that used to throw rocks along the tracks only after contemplating "what makes them hard and shiny", or "why are they different colors", or the kid who builds dams along the pavement during rain showers to see the effects of the water on the dirt are typical of the people drawn into this field. The simple analysis of rocks and fluid dynamics is exactly what geoscientists strive to understand on a somewhat more compl ex scale.

In the petroleum industry, geoscientists are called upon to locate potential sites for oil and gas exploration. This is increasingly difficult as the remaining deposits of oil and gas become more and more difficult to find. Although modern-day geoscien tists have strong roots to the professionals of the past, the specific jobs of today are not easily recognized in history. The days of the "rover boys" riding mules or walking into remote areas to find new places to explore for oil and gas are n o more. Modern geoscientists must take advantage of technological advances to find and produce economic deposits of oil and gas in a cost-effective way. The message here for geoscientists interested in entering the oil patch is diversification. A multidis ciplinary approach to hydrocarbon exploration is a necessity in the age of the subtle trap. So if you would like to pursue a career in the geosciences you must ask yourself not only "why", but "how", and "what?".

To pursue an academic degree there are basic courses in geoscience that will be required in all university undergraduate programs, regardless of the specialty one decides to pursue. Basic courses include stratigraphy, sedimentology, petrology, paleonto logy, mineralogy, structural geology, as well as associated courses in chemistry, physics, math, and computer science. For those concentrating on degrees in geophysics, courses in math, physics, and computers will make up the bulk of the basic class work. Following the basics, one must make choices regarding an area in which to specialize. To an undergraduate student, I would recommend treating all the basics as potential areas of specialization. Geoscience is a field of study where you must build a firm foundation that will be relied upon throughout your career.

An important method currently used by many companies to identify future employees is the summer internship program. This works well for both potential employer and employee. It allows you a chance to experience life inside a company to learn whether yo ur strengths and desires are a good fit. At the same time it provides companies with a method of recruiting and evaluating potential long-term employees. It can often be the best of both worlds for employer and summer intern alike. Most petroleum companie s today hire master's-degree candidates, while the research arm of these companies will most likely require a Ph.D.

It is important to consider your desired career path while pursuing your academic degrees, which also means considering where you would choose to live and the salary range expected. As a reference, the AAPG Explorer does a salary survey every few years that lists a range of representative salaries paid by major oil companies. As you might expect, most U.S. petroleum companies have locations on the Gulf Coast of the United States, with Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans serving as headquarters. Also, with the increasing emphasis on international exploration, the willingness to both travel and relocate for foreign assignments has become somewhat of a necessity as companies expand around the globe.

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