Petroleum engineering school celebrates centennial
It is hard to imagine where the world would be today without the impact of petroleum engineers on the nation's oil and gas industry.
They've been around for just about 100 years, and that milestone and contributions those engineers made to both the industry and the university will be celebrated at the University of Oklahoma later this year.
The celebration is being held in September by OU’s Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering at the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy.
Mike Stice, the college’s dean, said OU’s entry into providing petroleum-focused engineering educations to its students pre-dates the term “petroleum engineer.”
Officials said a total of 6,379 students graduated with petroleum engineering and related degrees at OU since 1919.
Over time, the programs and their names transformed. Today, 294 undergraduates and 168 graduate students attend the the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering.
What petroleum engineers do
Stice said petroleum engineers today make up a significant part of the value chain that produces energy for the nation and world.
He said that value chain starts with land professionals who work in the U.S. to acquire mineral rights to drill.
Once rights are acquired, geological and geophysics professionals map out what reserves the area includes.
Stice said petroleum engineering professionals join that chain when a drilling engineer identifies a plan to drill those reserves.
Next, a completions engineer evaluates how to stimulate a drilled well to be sure it provides the maximum amount of recoverable hydrocarbons.
Once a well is drilled and completed, a production engineer designs a system to recover those hydrocarbons from the well using an artificial lift apparatus or other means.
Finally, a reservoir engineer evaluates what was found and how it is recovered to calculate what ultimate amount of hydrocarbons could be commercially recovered from a particular well, play or field.
“They have to do their math right, because publicly traded companies have to carry those reserves on their books as assets,” Stice said.
Stice said people don’t really think of the oil and gas industry as a technology-driven operation.
However, “every time you turn around, there is a new breakthrough coming from some new idea and technology development,” he noted.
While some notable advances aren’t necessarily rooted in a petroleum engineer’s field, others are.
In 1921, OU alumni Clarence Karcher and E.L. DeGolyer invented the reflection seismograph, a two-dimensional technology that helped identify underground deposits of oil and natural gas.
In about 1950, it was discovered that stimulating coal formations using rudimentary hydraulic fracturing techniques released natural gas from seams to reduce the risk of underground mine explosions.
Mitchell Energy and other oil and gas exploration and production companies took that further, learning how to produce natural gas from shale formations.
Horizontal drilling was then introduced, along with ever-evolving hydraulic fracturing practices that today are used to produce both oil and natural gas from formations that previously were abandoned as worthless.
“We have been on the forefront of this technology, from the very beginning,” Stice remarked. “Much of its application was born out of industry, but we have played a leadership role in imaging in general, and we also have done a whole bunch of work on unconventional development.
“The unconventional resource requires a new type of imaging, so we basically have equipment here that looks at that on the nano-level to understand how and why fluid flows through impermeable rock.
“That’s something we didn’t even think was possible when I was developing resources in North America,” he said. “If our tests showed tight rock, we walked away from it, assuming it couldn’t be stimulated.”
While Stice spent a professional career working essentially as a petroleum geologist, he graduated from OU in 1981 with a degree in chemical engineering and went to work for Conoco.
During the next 28 years, Stice spent about half that time working overseas in the Middle East and Asia to help develop petroleum reserves in numerous countries.
In 2003, he served on the supply committee of the National Petroleum Council, which advised president George W. Bush the U.S. eventually would deplete its carbon resources and it needed to build an LNG import infrastructure to take imports of fuel from other countries where hydrocarbons remained plentiful.
But 3D seismic, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing flipped that narrative.
“The combination of all those different innovations have led us to an amazing abundance, where today we are thinking about energy independence.”
Stice returned from overseas in 2008 and was appointed dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy in 2013.
This week, Stice said he continues to wax nostalgic when thinking about the mark Oklahoma has left on the nation’s energy industry and how OU has influenced many of the technological advances that were involved.
“When you think about the independent producers just located here in Oklahoma City, large and small, this is an amazingly entrepreneurial industry,” Stice said, “And a large portion of those entrepreneurs like Curtis Mewbourne, Charles C. Stephenson Jr. and Lloyd Noble, they all are oil and gas icons who got their starts right here at the University of Oklahoma.”
Mewbourne, officials said, is one of OU’s top donors, supporting the school’s petroleum engineering school by funding faculty chairs, teaching lab renovations and student scholarships through the Mewbourne Scholars Program.
This week, Mewbourne said he is excited to see the profession reach 100 years, given how he believes the petroleum engineering degree he earned in 1958 changed the trajectory of his life.
“I was looking for adventure and excitement, and petroleum engineering looked like a way to find those things.”
After working for another company for about seven years, he said he decided to establish Mewbourne Oil Co. in Dallas, using his last paycheck to open a one-room office.
He immediately went to work to begin finding and developing oil and gas in the Permian Basin.
“It looked like a great opportunity for a young man with a petroleum engineering degree,” Mewbourne recalled. “I wasn’t looking to make a lot of money, frankly.
“I have been out there ever since, thank goodness,” he said, laughing.
Mewbourne said he is proud of OU and the quality of its petroleum geology graduates, noting they consistently earn admiration and respect from the industry by serving with distinction across the world.
He also noted he too sees the footprints of the petroleum engineer graduates across the university's campus, observing that they together are the largest single group of donors to the institution.
As for the financial support he has provided to OU over the years, Mewbourne said he was able to provide it because of his life successes.
“I can tell you that having a petroleum engineering degree meant everything in my success in life and in the business world,” he said. “I think education for young people is the only solution in this country to cure inequality and discrimination.
“For those of us who have become successful, if we can help young people get educations, it will cure those problems.”