Before working for an upstream oil company, I was under the impression that chemical engineers working in oil and gas belonged in pipeline and downstream operations. For those of you not in the industry, most large, integrated oil companies consist of an upstream organization and a downstream organization. The former focuses on exploration and production and the latter refines crude petroleum into usable products (gasoline, lubricants, etc.). Within upstream, processes and departments are often separated by subsurface work and surface facility work. Generally, most ChemE's in upstream are found on the facility side, managing projects related to tanks, pumps, pipelines and separators.
You may be asking, what about subsurface? And, can chemical engineers contribute to a traditionally petroleum engineering realm? The answer is, most definitely!
A reservoir is essentially a large tank filled with porous media and reservoir fluids - oil, gas and water. In order to recover oil or gas from a reservoir, chemical engineering fundamentals such as fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer must be understood and applied.
Petroleum engineering is not an exact science. Precise reservoir boundaries are often unknown, PVT samples are few and far between, recovery mechanisms are sometimes unclear, and original and current oil in place is determined probabilistically. The fact is, it wouldn't be economical to collect all of the data to make it an exact science. Without having all of the data, oil companies still have been successful in recovering resources thus far. However, we've picked the low hanging fruit when it comes to oil and gas resources and are moving toward environments with increased complexity - heavy oil, challenging shale plays, tight gas, deepwater exploration, etc. It's often said that the best place to find oil is within currently or previously producing reservoirs.
As we go back in and try to capture the residual oil, chemical engineering concepts will be critical in designing processes to recover these resources. Many oil or gas recovery mechanisms are well understood, such as waterfloods or gas cap expansion. Fortunately for our profession, there are areas, such as steam and polymer floods, that still need the keen eyes of engineers to model and optimize.
As we attempt to tackle the current global energy challenges, oil and gas will continue to be a key factor in the equation. While the focus of many chemical engineering graduates is in alternative energy solutions, there are still plenty of opportunities for a chemical engineer to make an impact in the world of upstream oil and gas.