Human resources

Why Starting or Continuing a Career in Upstream Oil and Gas Is Still a Good Idea

As the world continues to grapple with the post-pandemic new normal and unfamiliar global uncertainty, the case to begin and commit to a career in the upstream subsurface industry may be harder to see, but it’s still rewarding and with longevity.

Mars B Olympus tension leg platform. Photographic Services, Shell International Limited. All rights reserved.
Mars B Olympus tension leg platform (TLP), a deep-water oil field in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photographic Services, Shell International Limited. All rights reserved.

It has been almost 30 years since I decided to join the oil industry. In the 1990s, it wasn’t an obvious decision for a young woman with a general mathematics degree, studying in London but originally from rural Derbyshire with two teacher parents. And in a time when Shell’s decision to dispose of Brent Spar was a hot topic, and Brent price had subsided to around $20/bbl after an infamous boom in the 1980s.

An international oil and gas career was not what I had thought about when I imagined cycling to work along the Thames. But the oil industry still had a long future ahead of it, and the idea of combining technical problem-solving in an international setting had great appeal. I didn’t join Shell with the definite intention of staying with the company, or even in the oil industry, for all of my career. But the initial opportunities to learn and develop, while working on worthwhile and challenging problems with talented colleagues, were clear.

And when I reflect on it, regardless of the noise, particularly in Western media, the same value proposition is there. Joining the upstream subsurface community means starting a career full of creative opportunities and a chance to contribute to solving the world’s energy problems. The energy landscape as we know it is shifting. Forecasts indicate that the energy mix is going to change at varying rates and degrees of complexity across the globe in the coming years. Alongside a rapid growth of renewable sources like wind, solar, and low-emission fuels, there will be a continued and long-term global demand for oil and gas. Working in upstream doesn’t necessarily mean staying in upstream, and many of the challenges faced in developing oil and gas are very similar to those faced in developing nonfossil-fuel energy sources, which allows for exciting opportunities to develop transferable skills that would be an asset to many new energies’ projects.

What sort of similar challenges are we talking about? Well, the most obvious are those in carbon capture and storage, or CCS. In oil and gas development, we study reservoirs to analyze where to drill, to determine what will be recovered, and to decide whether we should inject water or gas to increase production rates. We drill wells to produce oil or gas, we monitor production and decide whether to optimize production through higher or lower rates, we decide whether to open or close zones, we decide whether to drill infill wells, we decide when to cease production from individual wells or from an entire field, and we decide how to safely abandon the reservoirs and wells. For CCS, we do a subset of this; we work out where we can safely store CO2, we decide how many wells to drill, we determine how to monitor to ensure the CO2 is being safely sequestered, and we decide how to we will eventually safely abandon the storage, leaving the CO2 trapped eternally in the subsurface. Many of our traditional subsurface skills are immediately translated for these types of projects—and equally all of the integration skills that subsurface engineers develop in their oil and gas production roles are immediately translatable for CCS projects.

The same is true for other subsurface “new energies” projects such as geothermal, electrification on demand, and other energy storage projects. They all require a good understanding of the subsurface, what can be injected and recovered, the efficiencies of these physical processes, and of course the integration between the academics of subsurface, the practicalities of surface engineering, and the practicalities of a commercial solution. The solution space of these three being exactly where upstream subsurface engineers thrive!

And those are just the technical engineering aspects of what we learn and develop.

The other aspect that has come deeply into play in the past few years is cost efficiency—competitively scoping developments to ensure that they have low unit-development costs and top-quartile energy efficiency. These two concepts may at face value seem to be at odds: Wouldn’t a “low-cost” development be more wasteful in terms of CO2 efficiency?

Not in the minds of responsible subsurface engineers, who are motivated to achieve both, and have the creativity and expertise to move a long way down the road in both aspects.

Within Shell we see the opportunities for our existing and new subsurface engineers to be able to work on either oil and gas or new energies projects and have launched initiatives to harness this energy centered around our “My Future” campaign and our refreshed competence development framework. These two efforts focus on skills that are complementary to both traditional oil and gas development and to renewable energy solutions—ensuring that staff can develop transferrable skills that will work for them and for our company in both energy provisions. Our competence framework includes the results of a well-attended staff workshop that assessed that around 65% of the traditional oil and gas skill set, including business and integration skills, can be immediately used for the energy transition, and another 30% are applicable with some adaptation. Only 5% were deemed nontransferrable. And within our company we are seeing that staff who have worked for years or decades in developing oil and gas are successfully able to move to roles within our energy transition projects, bringing their expertise and creativity immediately to bear in these new areas.

I have only mentioned our Shell initiatives specifically, but other companies have similar initiatives and projects in progress. I conclude that this is certainly no less exciting than other times to be in the upstream segment of the oil and gas industry. The challenge facing society is real, and upstream is a unique place to tackle it responsibly and head-on, with talented people delivering results for the future.

The last aspect I want to mention in the story of why to join the upstream subsurface industry, is the people who work in it. As part of a multinational such as Shell, I am privileged to work with amazing colleagues who are not only motivated to put their talents and expertise to work on solving the engineering problems of our company and contributing to responsible energy supply to the world, but who are also passionate about developing the next generation of engineers who will carry on their legacy. From my 30 years of global work experience in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, and despite what people might read or imply from media articles and news reports, none of my colleagues come daily to work to “destroy the planet” or “cause global warming” or “greenwash their activities;” rather, they are people striving to provide responsible and cost‑competitive energy to a global population.

And they all, whether just starting out or as principal technical experts, have time and energy to coach others to follow in their footsteps. We recruit people like me with bachelor’s degrees, through folks with master’s to academics with PhDs, and all are assisted to either grow the engineering expertise they need to carry out their work, or to tailor the results of their academic achievements to business results.

From the wellsite drilling engineering and senior reservoir engineers who coached me almost 30 years ago, to the principal technical experts and technical general managers who work for me now, I am inspired and grateful daily for the coaching and technical insights that upstream subsurface professionals give. Together, ensuring that just like for me as a mathematics graduate almost 30 years ago, the people who work in our industry have an exciting and rewarding future.

Liz Sturman is Shell’s vice president of development and subsurface excellence and chief petroleum engineer. She has worked for Shell since 1995 in a variety of hydrocarbon development, subsurface, planning, economics, and technology roles in the Netherlands, Angola, Nigeria, Brunei, and US. She holds a BSc in mathematics from Imperial College, London, and an MBA.