looking forward

Report: College enrollment in petroleum programs — including in Texas — sees historic drop

The future of the oil and gas workforce isn't looking too bright when it comes to recruiting, the Wall Street Journal reports. Photo via Getty Images

Student enrollment in petroleum engineering programs at universities — including Texas schools — has dropped significantly, according to a recent report.

This prospective energy workforce is concerned about job security as the industry moves forward in the energy transition, reports the Wall Street Journal. The number of students enrolled in petroleum engineering programs has decreased to its lowest point in a decade, the WSJ found, breaking the typical cycle, which "ebbed and flowed" alongside the price of oil.

This decline is estimated as a 75 percent drop in enrollment since 2014, Lloyd Heinze, a Texas Tech University professor, tells the WSJ. The article specifies that the University of Texas at Austin has seen a 42 percent decline since its peak enrollment in 2015, and Texas A&M University has dropped 63.3 percent. Both schools' petroleum engineering programs are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, by U.S. News and World Report. Texas Tech, which ties with the University of Houston at No. 9 on the U.S. News report, has seen a 88.1 percent decline since its peak in 2015. UH data wasn't included in the article.

The article highlights declines at Colorado School of Mines (87.7 percent), Louisiana State University (89 percent), and University of Oklahoma (90 percent) since their peak enrollment in 2015.

A decline in future workforce for the energy industry would directly affect Houston's economy. According to the 2023 Houston Facts report from the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston held 23.8 percent of the nation’s jobs in oil and gas extraction (33,400 of 140,200) 17.0 percent of jobs in oil field services (33,600 of 198,100), and 9.6 percent of jobs in manufacturing of agricultural, construction and mining equipment (20,400 of 212,000), based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Barbara Burger tells the WSJ that new climatetech-focused startups have emerged and become more attractive to both college graduates and current oil and gas workforce. “There’s competition in a way that probably wasn’t there 15 years ago,” she shares.

The lack of college student pipeline paired with the diminishing workforce from emerging companies poses a challenge to incubant energy corporations, many of which have invested in programs at schools to better attract college graduates. The WSJ article points to BP's $4 million fellowship program with U.S. universities announced in February.

Just this week, Baker Hughes granted $100,000 to the University of Houston's Energy Transition Institute, which was founded last year with backing from Shell. In a recent interview with EnergyCapital, Joseph Powell, founding director of UH Energy Transition Institute, explains how the institute was founded to better engage with college students and bring them into the transitioning industry.

"It takes a lot of energy to process chemicals, plastics, and materials in a circular manner," he says. "Developing that workforce of the future means we need the students who want to engage in these efforts and making sure that those opportunities are available across the board to people of all different economic backgrounds in terms of participating in what is going to be just a tremendous growth engine for the future in terms of jobs and opportunities."

Clean energy jobs are already in Texas, and are ripe for the taking, according to a recent SmartAsset report that found that 2.23 percent of workers in the Houston area hold down jobs classified as “green.” While oil and gas positions are still paying top dollar, these clean energy jobs reportedly pay an average of 21 percent more than other jobs.

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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