UW Sees Increase in Petroleum Engineering Majors

An increase in domestic oil and gas production, along with growing numbers of drilling experts approaching retirement age, have been accompanied by a surge in petroleum engineering majors.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — An increase in domestic oil and gas production, along with growing numbers of oil and gas drilling experts approaching retirement age, have been accompanied by a surge in petroleum engineering majors at the University of Wyoming.

Petroleum engineering enrollment at UW this fall is 219 students. That's up more than 50 percent from last year's enrollment, 144 students, and by far the most petroleum engineering students since UW revived its petroleum engineering major in 2006.

"It's not going to abate any time soon," Mark Northam, director of the UW School of Energy Resources, said Tuesday. "We've kind of got the perfect storm for rapidly increasing enrollment. Less expensive than elsewhere, high demand, good reputation. I believe it will continue to grow for the foreseeable future."

Enrolling in the program is relatively easy. Graduating is something else.

About 60 to 70 percent of students who enroll in petroleum engineering complete the program, a rate similar to other engineering majors, said David Bagley, head of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

"Of course, to graduate, they have to meet our requirements. It is strenuous," Bagley said.

Required coursework includes calculus, chemistry, physics, geology and thermodynamics. Students who can hack it are rewarded with plenty of job openings, salaries that can approach $100,000 for recent graduates, and the opportunity to live abroad.

"A lot of companies are looking for engineers for the North Dakota stuff. The Bakken is going crazy," said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

Drilling offshore and into the Bakken Shale formation in western North Dakota are largely responsible for increased domestic oil production four years running. Domestic gas drilling has meanwhile been a victim of its own success, with oversupply driving down prices.

All the while, many of the petroleum engineers who went into the field during the oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s are approaching retirement age.

"In the industry, they refer to it as the 'Big Crew Change.' It's all the baby boomers who are approaching the end of their careers," Northam said.

There are fewer than 20 accredited petroleum engineering programs nationwide, Bagley said, yet over half of UW's petroleum engineering majors are from Wyoming.

The university eliminated its petroleum engineering major in 1996, when the industry was soft. The school had 26 petroleum engineering majors at the time.

In 2006, after the program's revival, 47 students signed up. The number has increased almost ever since: 63 in 2007, 93 in 2008, 81 in 2009, and 107 in 2010.

Graduates often head to Houston, where many petroleum companies are based. From there, they might go to North Dakota or possibly overseas.

The opportunity to live abroad is appealing to many students, Bagley said.

"They realize they're going to go where there are resources to be recovered, and that could be anywhere," he said.

"The Wyoming students often like to get back to Wyoming. Sometimes it takes them awhile to work their way back around, as they work their way up through the company. And some may start here in Wyoming."