Career development

Ask an Expert: Farouq Ali on ‘Is It the Right Time to Revisit the Petroleum Engineering Educational Curriculum?’

The pillars of petroleum engineering: drilling, reservoir engineering, production, evaluation, and environment, and economics are here to stay for a very long time.


Yes and No. Yes, we are always updating our course contents to keep up with the latest developments in oil and gas production technologies and the underlying theoretical constructs, as well as the new environmental, social, and governance concerns. No, if it means making sweeping changes in a petroleum engineering curriculum and replacing many of the courses with new scientific and also fashionable trends. Examples abound: several petroleum engineering departments have changed the department name several times until no vestige of oil and gas remains in the name. I don’t want to pick on any (former) department of petroleum engineering. There are several reasons for changing the name and making massive changes to a petroleum engineering curriculum: To attract more funding, more students, and also to exhibit more concern for the current drive to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One other major reason is the mistaken belief that oil and gas, and fossil fuels in general, will be replaced by renewable energy in a time frame of about 20 years. This is the premise discussed in this article in the context of potential changes in a typical petroleum engineering curriculum.

Oil and gas, and coal are here to stay for a very long time. There is enough oil and gas to last more than 1,000 years, counting the gas hydrates. If the abiotic origin of hydrocarbons is accepted, they will be there forever. More to the point, there is no simple way to substitute wind and solar power for oil and gas (and coal). During the pandemic year, the oil consumption declined by only about 8%, as a result of reduced ground transportation because of many other uses. Some people talk about electricity as the thing of the future (including airplanes and ships operating on electricity). Others talk about hydrogen being the fuel to replace everything else. Hydrogen comes in several colors, none economic at this time, except the hydrogen produced from natural gas. We are then stuck with carbon dioxide that must be utilized or more likely disposed of. Electric cars have problems of their own—it is a case of displacing GHG emissions, unless the electricity is coming from hydroelectric plants, which have almost reached their full potential worldwide, not even considering the enormous cost. Manufacture of batteries for a typical electric car produces almost half as much carbon dioxide as a gasoline-powered car emits over its life time. It is a matter of perception.

Look around you: more than half of the items you see come from oil and gas. Gas is a valuable raw material apart from being a fuel. And there is plenty of it in the world—think of the gigantic shale gas and oil (with plenty of dissolved gas) deposits around the world. As for coal, there are huge deposits in China (one trillion tonnes by their own reckoning) and India, and many other countries. These will be utilized in one form or other. Coal liquefaction has been around for 100 years. Innovative uses will be found for coal.

Petroleum engineers are trained to produce oil and gas, and we are steadily turning to gas hydrates also. I devote 2 weeks to hydrates (production mainly) in my natural gas course. We are also trained to do fluid injection into different types of reservoirs, including solution mining to create caverns in salt domes, injection of carbon dioxide for EOR, and more recently, for disposal under a wide variety of conditions. With the advances in reservoir engineering and simulation by people trained by petroleum engineering schools, nobody can do it better. Many people from other disciplines are entering the field, learning the basic petroleum engineering skills although they may be averse to say so for political reasons.

The pillars of petroleum engineering: drilling, reservoir engineering, production, evaluation, and environment, and economics are here to stay for a very long time. Far more remains to be discovered inside the earth (the deepest Kola well was less than 8 miles deep—
there is a Springer book on the subject), than we discovered billions of miles out in the space (the Voyager probes). Note also that in most petroleum engineering courses we address environmental issues as appropriate. In fact, oil companies are the most responsible protectors of environment among all industries. But if a single accident occurs the whole oil and gas industry is held responsible.

Petroleum engineering, as taught in 30 schools in North America, will continue to be the backbone of the energy industry for 1,000 years, or more. We do not need to vastly change petroleum engineering curricula, much less change the names of the departments. We need to do a superb job at teaching what we do best. Tell the environmentalists that oil and gas saved the whales and much more, and will continue to do so.

Farouq Ali is a distinguished professor at the University of Houston. Previously he served as the Encana/Petroleum Society Chair and professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at University of Calgary. He has more than 40 years of experience in industry and academia, having served as a professor at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alberta, and the University of Regina.

Considered one of the world’s leading experts in reservoir engineering, oil recovery, and simulation, Ali advises oil companies and various governments on oil policy and production strategies. He has authored more than 500 papers, conducted more than 200 petroleum reservoir studies and designed over 30 major oil fields projects.

Ali has been honored with awards from SPE, the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta and the Russian Academy of Sciences. He holds a master’s and doctoral degrees in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Penn State University.