Thursday, April 10, 2014

The dumbest thing you will read all day

Via John Spevacek, this WSJ op-ed on the lack of petroleum engineering departments in elite universities contains an absolutely ahistorical statement (emphasis mine): 
The oil and gas industry has been historically volatile and marked by boom-and-bust cycles caused by fluctuating commodity prices, with company prospects often tied to hit-or-miss exploratory drilling. Not surprisingly, the industry has struggled with periodic brain drain since the 1980s as students looking for steady employment and career growth have been turned off by such uncertainty. 
Technological advances such as seismic imaging, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—all developed by private companies—have removed much of this volatility and changed the nature of the industry to more of a manufacturing operation. But now another source of even greater uncertainty has been injected into the mix: political and regulatory risk. This is one energy lesson that undergraduates are hearing loud and clear from their professors.
Relax, all you wildcatters, the oil and gas industry's more like making license plates* these days. Ho hum.

John has an interesting assertion about the salary direction of petroleum engineers, which is a slight bit different than the predictions of some Texas A&M professors -- hard to say who's right, though.

I vaguely agree with the author that there is a lot of ideological-not-quite-fully-economically-incentivized push for educating students in green technology. But it's easier to say "we need to train more researchers in innovative new green nanofemtoyottotechnologies" to Congresscritters than it is to say "it sure would be helpful to have some more electrochemists around here", even as they might be the same thing. 

Also, I feel the author doesn't look very closely at why some universities might have departments of petroleum engineering and some might not. It's not ideology, so much as economics and history. 

*Reference from Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon", explained here


  1. {flame}Well, of course it's all those liberals - the free market doesn't make mistakes.{/flame}

    Petroleum engineering seems like it might be kind of specific for a lot of universities - it's an important niche, but a niche. It also would probably involve a combination of fields which might not happen in places other than those with a specific reason to have them - mechanical and chemical engineering, geology, maybe civic engineering. Engineering schools would have most of the engineering fields, but geology might not be common. In addition, if companies funded all that tech, then universities may not have people capable of teaching it, particularly if the details are treated like trade secrets.

    It also seems like it'd be hard for universities to deal with boom-and-bust cycles in applicants and graduates - it's great when you've got shale gas and high oil prices fueled by quantitative easing, but what happens when the gas runs out, quantitative easing ends, or someone actually decides that all that CO2 we put out is doing something? Unemployed graduates don't fund new dorms, and what do you do as a petroleum engineer if there isn't so much oil or gas being found or used, or not enough money in it? I imagine that it might be even less flexible than a chemistry degree in a tight job market, though effectively (if chemists can't switch subfields) maybe not.

  2. If petroleum engineering is effectively making license plates, why do we need more places to train petroleum engineers, unless 1) it isn't making license plates, yet, and 2) we don't really want to pay what labor wants in a market that isn't oversupplied. Haven't I heard this before?