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January 11, 2007

High oil prices prompt UPB to resurrect petroleum tech program

Pennsylvania may not be the first place to come to mind when one thinks of oil wells, but the state’s oil industry — born with the drilling of the first well in Titusville in 1859 — has jobs to fill thanks to high oil and gas prices.

According to the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association (POGAM), Pennsylvania oil producers operate approximately 16,000 wells and produce 2 million barrels of crude oil each year. A recent survey of labor needs showed that a substantial number of oil and gas producers are hiring and have concerns about finding qualified workers to fill the positions.

Pitt-Bradford will help to fill that gap by reinstating its petroleum technology program this semester.

Petroleum technology, UPB’s first degree program, was among the more popular programs in the campus’s early days. Of UPB’s first graduates, one-third earned petroleum technology degrees, said Steven Hardin, UPB vice president and dean of academic affairs.

“The petroleum technology major was appropriate because of the history of oil discovery and development here in this area,” he said.

The program was mothballed, but not eliminated, in the late1980s when a slump in oil prices put a damper on the entire industry. “The demand for it wasn’t there. There wasn’t the need for it in the region,” he said.

Now that oil prices are up, there’s renewed interest in drilling and exploration — and jobs.

Last year POGAM surveyed 126 oil and gas companies operating in north central Pennsylvania. The 34 that responded stated they plan to hire a total of 1,026 new workers. Most of the jobs are with drilling contractors and well service companies that need operations personnel, drilling and completion workers and laborers on drilling and service rig crews. Other vacancies are in operations, oil and gas production, geology, engineering and other management and technical positions.

Hardin said among those vacancies are 172 for petroleum technologists, with an expected need for 800 more within three years.

The jobs pay well. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from its 2005 occupational survey show geological and petroleum technicians in the oil and gas extraction industry earn a mean wage of $59,960 a year.

Petroleum technologists work under the supervision of a petroleum engineer, said petroleum technology program director Assad Panah, a UPB geology and environmental science professor. They might perform such tasks as exploration, drilling, surveying, interpreting well site logs or reading well samples.

“The need is tremendous,” Panah said, adding there are few competing programs to educate petroleum technologists.

He noted the need is not just local, but also national and international: “Students could go anywhere.”

UPB’s program is targeting not only newcomers to the industry, but also current oil and gas industry workers. The core courses all begin after 5 p.m. to accommodate students already in the workforce.

Although oil prices have fallen from their summertime highs of nearly $78 a barrel, Panah said he does not believe oil prices will ever fall back to the $11 per barrel range that brought the industry to a halt back in the 1980s.

“It’s not going to happen any more,” he said, citing competition for fuel supplies due to economic growth in China and India.

“We don’t believe this program will die very quickly,” he said, noting that technologies for extracting oil from non-traditional sources such as oil sands and oil shales and the ability to drill in very deep environments have extended estimates of the world’s oil supply.

Taking these factors into account, Panah said, the oil supply will last more than 250 years.

Because UPB already has labs in its geology department and the background in teaching petroleum technology courses, it has been able to respond quickly to restore the program.

Although the program is based on the original, it has been updated based on industry input, Hardin said.

POGAM President Stephen Rhoads said, “We’re very excited the UBP program was able to come back up so quickly. The problem is we have this demand but we have no way of meeting it.”

POGAM, in collaboration with the North Central Workforce Investment Board, recently formed the Energy Industry Partnership, aimed in part at developing programs such as UPB’s to educate new workers and to help current workers upgrade their skills. The group late last month pledged $16,000 in support of the UPB program to help employ adjunct faculty.

“We want to develop the educational infrastructure that disappeared in the ’80s and ’90s when the industry tanked,” Rhoads said. “When wellhead prices fell to their lowest level and stayed there for 15 years, everything dried up and blew away.”

Panah noted that plenty has changed since the program went into hibernation. Not only has the technology of oil drilling changed to provide access to more and more reservoirs, refineries have become automated and computerized.

“There were no supercomputers, no GIS (geographic information systems), no 3-D plotting as are used in the industry today,” he said. “Everything has changed.”

The updated program was designed in consultation with industry representatives and with those changes in mind. The program is largely hands-on and includes some courses taught by adjunct professors from the field. Additions to the curriculum include classes in structural geology and in geophysical prospecting. Other updated classes in the 67-credit associate degree program emphasize environmental safety and information science and technology.

Panah said the classes include not just memorizing facts, but gaining practical knowledge, working in the field and developing contacts in the industry. Because the curriculum was developed with input from the companies that need qualified employees, “We’re hopeful the industry will be hiring these people right away,” Panah said.

Badie Morsi, a professor in the School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and director of its petroleum engineering program, said there also are job opportunities for petroleum engineers — the professionals who oversee petroleum technologists — but few of those jobs are in the Pittsburgh area.

“I think petroleum engineering has a future,” he said.

Unlike the Bradford region, where there is a demand for the petroleum technology graduates the UPB program will produce, local opportunities for petroleum engineers are sparse because Pittsburgh no longer is located in the middle of the oil industry, and because fewer engineers than technologists are needed.

While Pitt offered the world’s first petroleum engineering program — established in 1910 — the University’s petroleum and chemical engineering programs were merged several decades ago. Commencement records from the University archives show the last bachelor’s degree graduates in petroleum engineering received their diplomas in 1973.

Graduate degrees in petroleum engineering continue to be available at Pitt, but undergraduates interested in the field today would take a chemical engineering degree with either a certificate or a minor in petroleum engineering.

“The dividing line is very, very loose between chemical and petroleum engineering,” Morsi said, noting that graduates from Pitt’s program compete well with people who have a formal degree in petroleum engineering.

Although the numbers vary, Pitt typically graduates about two students with minors and three or four with certificates in petroleum engineering each academic year, Morsi estimated.

Nationwide, programs for petroleum engineers are few and far between, he said, citing estimates that only 17 such programs exist, producing a total of about 250 graduates a year.

While Morsi said the UPB petroleum technology program is unlikely to directly affect the Pittsburgh campus’s petroleum engineering program, he finds it helpful that word is spreading about the industry’s upswing.

“Basically, the demand is humongous,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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