Petroleum engineering – quo vadis?

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I listened into a conversation the other day about petroleum engineering courses in UK universities.  In this, one of the contributors expressed surprise – shock almost – that such courses still existed, given what we know about climate change and net-zero carbon targets.  In fact there are a lot of such courses in our universities (mostly as components of chemical engineering degrees).  See UCAS and other data.

Their continuing existence would seem quite rational as universities have a range of criteria for running a degree course.  Prominent amongst these are: there is a demand from well-qualified young people, there are well-paid, graduate level jobs to be had at the end of a degree and post-graduate opportunities, there are well-qualified staff to teach it, a research base to support it, and the course enhances (or at least does not diminish) the institution’s reputation.

Given that we shall be using petroleum for a long time, even when we reach “net-zero” (*), their continued existence and recruitment is not a surprise.  How long they will continue to exist is a trickier question.  Supply / demand factors will change no doubt as the industry declines – or more likely evolves to something beyond petroleum, and many companies are in this transition already.  An unknowable factor must be the reputational one: will universities draw back if the degrees come to be seen as beyond the carbon pale?  Who knows.  One factor in reputation may be the extent to which such degrees explore post-carbon futures with students.  Given where we are, it would be irrational for a university not to do this, as it would hardly be good graduate preparation.  As to what they do, and how, and how much, better ask an academic chemical engineer.
(*) The clue is in the term “net”.  We shall likely still be using petroleum when we are at net-zero and off-setting it because we shall still need it; the vital services provided by the petroleum industry when we reach net-zero are likely to be dominated by the need for chemical feedstocks, but who knows what other avenues will open up in the coming years.

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