Where Do Chemical Engineers Fit into the Upstream Oil and Gas Industry?

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.

Pumping Unit in Bakersfield, Ca

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.

Do you work, or have you ever considered working, in the gas and oil industry?


ehorahan's picture

Katie, great article! I am looking forward to reading more about the chemical engineering components of the upstream petroleum industry. I work in the electronics manufacturing industry which is very different and perhaps more precise - so its interesting to read about something so different. Was it difficult to get used to the "not exact science" part of your job?

Katie Horner's picture

Thanks for the feedback! Yes, the fact that it's not an exact science definately requires some getting used to. I was pretty surprised the first time I saw someone 'massaging' some data in order to make sense of it.

Susan Clarkson's picture

Very inspiring, and moving....

Robert S's picture

I am working on the downstream side - but spent a lot of time as an environmental engineer with similar experiences. Modeling chemical migration through solid, liquid, and gas phases. Same as vessel and columns, just less information and boundary limits. I worked with a geologist that said with one sample point you know the answer as fact. With the second point (and any thereafter) you have a new theory but need one more sample to confirm it. It does take some getting used to, especially as a new engineer when many of the conclusions are based on experience. How many other chemical engineers do you run into upstream? Are chemical engineers a minority in the field or somewhat common?

Katie Horner's picture

Your comment about the geologist is very true! And yes, experience is a big factor in decision making. As far as your question, we have a few chemical engineers doing subsurface type work, but the majority of our petroleum engineers have backgrounds in petroleum engineering.

Aurian's picture

Good article, Katie, and you are certainly right about the fact that oil and gas is part of the energy equation as we transition through the next decade (or ten!). I, too, am a chemical engineer in the upstream O&G business, and I can second almost everything that you laid out in your post. I think it is interesting you said (in the comments) that you don't see many chems in your work. Here in Australia it seems as though chemical engineers are doing everything upstream: process design, project engineering, petroleum engineering, safety engineering, flow assurance, CFD, etc. - there seem to be many varied opportunities for a chem eng background. Thanks again for the post!

Norman Carnahan's picture

AIChE is in the process of establishing a Forum for Upstream Engineering and Flow Assurance as a meeting place for all engineers, scientists and technologists who work in the general "upstream" area of natural resource development and production. Aurian's comments are correct. There are many fundamentals and applications of chemical engineering that are and should be involved in the modern and smart approaches to developing our energy resources now and for the future. The new Forum is intended to promote more interchange of chemical engineering technology with our upstream colleagues in all disciplines. Please consider this your personal invitation to join us. If you are interested in the new AIChE Forum for Upstream Engineering and Flow Assurance, please email to: carnahan@ccteq.com

Temilola's picture

Thank you for this. I was beginning to lose hope that there was any chance for a Chemical Engineer to work in the upstream petroleum industry. This has been very motivating.

collins's picture

Am so pleased in what you people are discussinq here, am a chemical Engr but am still a trainee in an oil and gas company in Nigeria... I really wish to learn more about upstream and downstream processes... Am also seeking for a job where my field of study will be explored... Thank to you all...

ajit's picture

Is applied petrolium engineering with specialization in ups stream better or gas streambetter for future prospects?

Jahnavi's picture

do chemical engineers have a role in reservoir dynamics? if yes, how to proceed for students? and how do chemical engineers fit in?