Petroleum Geologist

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Petroleum Geologist


Humankind has used various forms of petroleum for centuries. The Babylonians used asphalt to pave paths and caulk boats, and the ancient Egyptians used tar to prepare their mummies. Today, it would be hard to imagine a world without petroleum. How would we drive our cars or heat our homes? Petroleum products have such an overwhelming impact on all of our lives, acting as a major source of modern energy. Petroleum geologists are involved in the exploration and extraction of petroleum from the ground. They use information gathered from tests, rock samples and remote sensing imagery to decide where to drill for oil and gas in the most optimal method.

Using their knowledge of math, geology, science and engineering, they strive to ensure the best drilling techniques are used to get the maximum amount of petroleum from a deposit. Petroleum is any naturally occurring hydrocarbon found in tiny spaces in sedimentary rock, beneath the surface of the Earth, no matter whether that hydrocarbon is solid, liquid or gas. Petroleum geologists study and interpret information on sediments, mineral and rock compositions and geologic structure to determine where oil and gas deposits are most likely to occur. To obtain this information, they usually collect data from seismic operations and, occasionally, from gravity, magnetic or satellite surveys.

Before a well is built, petroleum geologists often work closely with engineers to research and design oil rigs. They help engineers identify and determine the characteristics of a petroleum deposit and which techniques will best work at a petroleum site to design a rig accordingly. It is no easy task to find the right drilling spot because no one can see what lies beneath the surface. Therefore, petroleum geologists must perform seismic experiments to create data and scientific models in order to understand the layers of rock beneath the surface, and how they affect the petroleum deposit.

The collection of seismic data involves sending shock waves into the ground and measuring how long it takes the subsurface rocks to reflect the waves back to the surface. Shock waves are generated by pounding the earth with a vibrator truck or by exploding small dynamite charges in shallow holes. Boundaries between the rocks bounce the waves back, and petroleum geologists listen for these waves using detection devices called geophones. Computers process the geophone data and convert it into seismic lines, which are nothing more than two-dimensional displays that resemble cross-sections. This tells geologists how much oil is in the ground. This seismic data, collected in this fashion may be used to help create three-dimensional computer models of the underground geometries of the rocks.

Some petroleum geologists work on offshore vessels and travel internationally. Many geologists love the travel aspect of the job. Those who work overseas face some unique challenges because they must apply their scientific knowledge in places where the culture, climate or setting is very different, such as tundra, desert or subsea drilling.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Petroleum geologists should have strong math, physics and chemistry skills. They must be able to solve complex and stressful problems, think quickly and make decisions just as fast. They should have the ability to work independently on the computer, doing design work as well as working in teams at oil drilling sites and offshore rigs. Petroleum geologists require excellent communication skills as they deal with a variety of people on a daily basis. Also, they must enjoy traveling and working away from home for extended periods of time.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct preliminary surveys and studies of ore and mineral deposits to ascertain the economic and environmental feasibility of potential drilling operations
  • Explore mining areas to determine the structure and the types of rocks or minerals that exist
  • Advise on the geological suitability of where to drill for petroleum and assist in determining the economics of extracting oil
  • Determine the most suitable means of safely extracting petroleum
  • Analyze drilling data to determine if wells contain significant quantities of hydrocarbons that can be recovered
  • Analyze reservoir rock and fluid data to design optimum recovery methods and to predict reservoir performance and reserves
  • Find ways to improve production and optimize drilling methods
  • Estimate the immediate and long-term production capabilities of oil and gas wells
  • Use seismic tools and computers to integrate and interpret data sets of geological information
  • Prepare geological models and detailed maps to describe location of oil
  • Petroleum geologists tend to work long hours, especially when working in the field. They often work on site for a few weeks and then take a significant number of days off. Those working in oil fields or on offshore drilling rigs often work 12-hour shifts. There can be quite a bit of travel involved, often in foreign countries and to remote field stations. Once they become established and experienced, many petroleum geologists move towards more office work and regular hours.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • The majority of petroleum geologists work on site in locations where oil and gas are found. Petroleum geologists also work overseas in the major oil producing countries and regions around the world like the Middle East.
  • Employment opportunities are available with major oil companies, smaller, independent oil exploration, production and service companies, well logging or testing companies and geology and engineering consulting firms. Others work for government agencies and research or educational institutions. Some petroleum geologists have their own consulting businesses or work for international financial institutions that lend money to companies for the purchase of oil and gas properties.

  Long Term Career Potential  
As petroleum geologists gain experience, they begin to work more regular hours in an office or as the head of a team. The entry level work is more on-site and involves traveling, but once petroleum geologists gain that hands-on experience, the work becomes more research based and design oriented. Some may decide to branch off and open their own petroleum and geology consulting firm or work as a freelancer.

Another direction some will take involves more of a managerial role or a corporate advancement in a large petroleum company. Oil is one of the richest commodities in the world; therefore it is no wonder that petroleum geologists are typically higher paid than other geologists.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement for petroleum geologists is a Bachelor of Science (BS) honors degree in geology. A master's or doctoral degree in petroleum geology may be required for employment as a postsecondary professor or full-time academic researcher. Petroleum geologists are eligible for professional registration as a geologist following graduation from an accredited educational program and after several years of supervised work experience and after passing a professional practice examination.

Before choosing a university, make sure the school's geology department has classes with a good selection of courses in petroleum geology. Another idea is to volunteer doing geology work at a drill site or oil field -- one of the best things you can do is to try and picture yourself in that career, on location.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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