10 Dimensions International
WHAT IS PETROLEUM?
Most people associate petroleum with transportation, but
petroleum is not just used for fuel. Thousands of everyday vital
products come from petroleum. One 42-gallon barrel of oil
creates 20 gallons of gasoline and four gallons of jet fuel. The
remaining 18 gallons are used to make things like solvents, ink,
tires, motor oil, ice cube trays, house paint, roofing material,
surf boards, hand lotion, candles, shampoo, food preservatives,
toothpaste, golf balls, ice cream, heart valves, trash bags, anti-
freeze, eyeglasses, shower curtains, and so on.
All these petroleum and associated products come from
hydrocarbon resources found under the earth’s surface and
require human intervention to produce them. Hydrocarbon
is the result of the decomposition of organic matter over the
course of millions of years, which is why the derived fuel or
energy is a “nonrenewable” source of energy. This means that
any depletion of such a deposit cannot be replenished in the
foreseeable future. Consequently, there is an absolute neces-
sity for other sources of energy to be developed to support the
depleting global petroleum reservoirs that have been subjected
to intense demand from energy consumers.
FIELD OF PETROLEUM ENGINEERING
The field of petroleum engineering is all about the exploration
and production of various petroleum-based hydrocarbons,
particularly natural gas and crude oil. These are some of the
most significant sources of energy.
Exploration is the phase prior to actually finding a com-
mercial hydrocarbon resource, and the tasks are mainly car-
ried out by geoscientists with the cooperation of petroleum
engineers. Subsequently, the resource is transferred to the
petroleum engineers who become responsible for develop-
ment, management, operations and production.
Petroleum engineering, as an academic discipline, originat-
ed in 1914 at the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgi-
cal and Petroleum Engineers (AIME) and the first degree was
awarded by the University of Pittsburgh, PA, in 1915.
The number of petroleum engineer students is low com-
pared to the other known engineering departments, such
as mechanical or electrical; therefore, there is a worldwide
industry demand for petroleum engineers.
The petroleum engineers formed a society — the history
begins within AIME. AIME was founded in 1871 in Penn-
Integrated task cycle for a typical
Reservoir Management Engineer.
WHAT DOES A PETROLEUM
ENGINEER REALLY DO?
Few career paths in today’s world
offer the amazing variety of key
roles that petroleum engineers play
in the global economy, and as the
world’s demand for hydrocarbons
and their products continues to
rise, petroleum engineers will
play a crucial role in ensuring that
demand is met, new technologies
are deployed, costs and risks are
managed, the environment is
protected, and the world’s
economic future remains secure.
BY DR. ZILLUR RAHIM, ADNAN AL-KANAAN
AND DR. HAMOUD A. AL-ANAZI
sylvania to advance the production of metals, minerals, and
energy resources through the application of engineering. The
Petroleum Branch of AIME became a full-fledged profes-
sional society — the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) —
in 1957 and the first Board of Directors meeting was held in
Dallas, Texas, with president John H. Hammond presiding.
The number of SPE members in 2014 exceeded 124,000,
making the society the largest in the engineering industry.
WHAT IS A RESERVOIR?
“Reservoir” is one of the most common terms in petroleum
engineering. What is a reservoir? In a general sense, a res-
ervoir is a large natural or artificial lake used as a source of
water supply. In petroleum engineering terms, a reservoir
is where the hydrocarbon migrates into and resides — an
underground source usually thousands of feet deep — sitting
in very harsh conditions of pressure and temperature, and
bounded by impermeable layers above and below to contain
The two main fabrics of reservoirs are carbonates and
sandstones. They possess different chemistry and character-
istics, and do not provide open space like lakes. Rather, they
are tightly grained, often consolidated, and hydrocarbon is
stored in the very small pore spaces of the rock fabric, known
When these pore spaces are connected and the fluid can pass
from one set of pores to the other, the rock becomes permeable.
This phenomenon is defined as “permeability,” and the higher
the permeability, the greater is the potential for hydrocarbon
flow. The flow of hydrocarbon from the reservoir reaches the
wellbore due to pressure differential between the reservoir and
wellbore, making the reservoir producible.
Saturation is an important aspect of a reservoir as differ-
ent fluids, such as water, oil and gas, can coexist in the same
structure. No single fluid is usually found to saturate the
entire reservoir. Even if a single fluid existed, such as in a very
dry gas reservoir, not all the gas can be produced by virtue of
some of the gas sticking to the porosity walls, termed as resid-
Porosity, movable hydrocarbon saturation, reservoir thick-
ness and extent generally define the amount of hydrocarbon
accumulated in a field and permeability defines the produc-
WHO IS A PETROLEUM ENGINEER?
A petroleum engineer is employed by an oil company to
design, test, and implement methods to produce petroleum
products from the earth and sea floor. These engineers are
involved in confirming the commercial presence of oil or gas,
locating the drilling sites, designing products by combining
their efforts with other engineering groups, contributing to
the development of software to control and run equipment
and simulate hydrocarbon flow through the reservoir, plan-
ning field development, and oversee the removal and process-
ing of the petroleum itself.
A petroleum engineer possesses a mix of various skills in
mathematics, chemistry, geology, physics, finance, etc., over
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A cut out view of a hydrocarbon reservoir illustrating rock
bedding and layering.
THIS GRAPH SHOWS THE MEMBERSHIP GROWTH OF THE
SOCIETY OF PETROLEUM ENGINEERS (SPE) FROM THE LATE
1950s TO 2014. MEMBERSHIP CURRENTLY EXCEEDS 124,000.
SOCIETY OF PETROLEUM ENGINEERS (SPE) MEMBERSHIP
COUNT BY REGION.
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020
12 Dimensions International12 Dimensions International
and above the core petroleum engineering subjects. The dis-
cipline also overlaps several other engineering branches that
include chemical, civil, and mechanical engineering; however,
the work is focused on the evaluation and production of gas
and oil reservoirs, making them available to the consumer in
various forms and stages.
Given the vast scope of petroleum engineering, a
single person obviously cannot champion all the tasks.
The petroleum engineering functions are broadly divid-
ed into three categories: Upstream, Midstream, and
Downstream. The very onset of exploration with the
drilling of exploratory wells and subsequent develop-
ment and production of the field is considered Upstream
and is often referred to as Exploration and Production
(E&P). The Midstream sector includes all the complex
pipeline networks to transport the hydrocarbon from
the wells to the purification plants, refineries and other
installations. The ultimate refining and processing of
the crude, purification of natural gas, operating pet-
rochemical plants, deriving products from oil and gas,
etc., compose the Downstream industry. The delineation
of a field (identifying field boundaries) and its develop-
ment by drilling a sufficient number of wells, ensuring
that the hydrocarbon production target is met and the
field is produced optimally and economically, and man-
aged diligently by using proper production strategies are
important tasks carried out by the Upstream petroleum
engineers. They ensure that the reservoir life cycle is
maximized by applying the most appropriate engineer-
ing and earth science technologies while fully complying
with safety and environmental regulations.
There are four areas of concern for a petroleum engi-
neer: finding the oil/gas, evaluating hydrocarbon poten-
tial, maximizing recovery and transportation and stor-
age. The major specialties include: design, oversee and
run multimillion dollar drilling and production opera-
tions, perform laboratory tests, studies, and experiments
to understand the reservoir and enhanced recovery meth-
ods, and develop computer simulation models to deter-
mine the optimal recovery process.
Upstream petroleum engineers are further divided
according to their specialties; some specialize in drilling
engineering and are responsible for designing and actual
drilling of the wells. “Production” engineers ensure proper
completion and tie-in of the well to the processing plants,
Left A computer model of a field development plan simulated by the petroleum engineers with optimal well spacing and configuration.
Right A reservoir simulation model combined with geology showing well placement and hydrocarbon movement.
1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020 2025 2030 2035 2040
HISTORIC AND FUTURE ENERGY DEMAND WORLDWIDE.
ENROLLMENT OF ENGINEERING STUDENTS IN BACHELOR DEGREE
SOURCE: U.S. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION (RELEASE DATE JULY 25, 2013).
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managing production operations, and optimizing operat-
“Stimulation” engineers fracture and rejuvenate wells
to enhance productivity, making unconventional reservoirs
commercially producible. “Reservoir” engineers fully eval-
uate reservoir properties, potential, and forecast oil and
gas production rates.
Petroleum reservoir management is one of the main
branches of petroleum engineering and includes: overall field
development and planning, maximizing property value, evalu-
ating production performance, ensuring reservoir health, and
being responsible in supplying and sustaining a substantial
portion of world energy.
Among all aspects of petroleum engineering, reservoir
management engineering, mainly comprised of reservoir engi-
neers, is the final authority and responsible entity for the sup-
ply of petroleum to a country. Reservoir management engi-
neers forecast 1- to 5-year operating and business plans by
running complex simulation models that include field devel-
opment design and strategy, optimal drilling direction and
well configuration, production performance forecasts, long-
term production sustainability and financial budgeting. Their
work is office-based and a significant part of it is spent inter-
acting and working with the drilling engineers, log and core
specialists, laboratory scientists, and completion, stimulation,
and production technologists to ensure that field development
progresses as per design and requirement.
During the initial training and assignments, a petroleum
engineer rotates between fields and offices, such as manufac-
turing installation, production plants, well sites, labo-
ratories and computing centers. Petroleum engineers
can work in offices or in the field, or at both places,
depending on the specialization and focus.
Therefore, a reservoir management engineer who
deals with well productivity enhancement, designing
field development, managing and optimizing reser-
voir performance, can spend their career in an office
environment with infrequent visits to operation facilities.
A production engineer, on the other hand, deal-
ing with well completion, reservoir stimulation, and
surface installations splits his or her job between the
office and operation sites, as needed. A drilling engi-
neer who is responsible for the actual drilling of a well,
mostly needs to stay on-site during the duration of time
assigned to him. An experienced drilling engineer can
choose to work on designing wells, optimizing technol-
ogies, supervising operations, and managing logistics,
thereby spending much time in the office.
When petroleum engineering is mentioned, it most
likely refers to the Upstream.
Downstream engineers, often called petrochemi-
cal engineers, are more skilled in fluids and chemistry,
and are responsible for the proper separation, pro-
cessing and purification of crude, running the refinery
plants, and working in the process of converting petro-
leum raw materials to develop and produce a diverse
range of products, commodities, and specialty chemi-
cals, including medicines.
As demands increase for alternative energy, some for-
ward-thinking petroleum engineers are turning their talents
to working on clean energy products that produce lower
Many petroleum engineers travel the world or live in for-
eign countries — wherever their explorations take them to
find and recover these valuable natural reserves. Petroleum
engineers interact with world industry professionals on a
regular basis through meetings and conferences, to become
familiar with each other’s challenges, share and disseminate
Left A well log showing formation lithology, reservoir development
and gas saturation. Right A computer model of a gas field.
SAUDI ARAMCO CRUDE OIL PRODUCTION. IN 2013, THE AVERAGE
PRODUCTION WAS 9.4 MILLION BARRELS OF OIL PER DAY.
1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
14 Dimensions International14 Dimensions International
information, and deduce solutions to tough problems.
Another facet of petroleum engineering is the financial anal-
ysis of each project. Petroleum engineers must gauge financial
viability and determine if the entire process will be economical.
Organization, integration, and analysis of data are important
parameters for engineers
to carry out such evalu-
have a future full of
challenges and oppor-
tunities. In addition to
working in the onshore
they must develop and
apply new technology
to recover hydrocar-
bons from offshore oil
and gas fields and from
unconventional shale oil and gas, tar sands, and tight gas.
They must also devise new techniques — enhancing second-
ary and tertiary modes of exploitation — to recover oil and
gas left in the ground after exhausting conventional pro-
ducing methods. This can include injecting chemicals in the
reservoir and making it preferential to oil flow or
using in situ combustion and heating techniques
to make heavy oil lighter in the reservoir so that it
can be easily flowed back to the well.
In practice, “conventional oil and gas,” or
the term “conventional resources,” applies to oil
and gas that become producible after the drilling,
completion and perforation operations, just by the
natural reservoir pressure or sometimes by apply-
After the reservoir has been producing for a
long period of time — usually decades — the natu-
ral pressure of the wells may be too low to pro-
duce the remaining quantities of oil and gas. At
that time, different recovery techniques are used to
boost production, which may include water and
gas injection or sophisticated compression mecha-
nisms; but these oil and gas fields will still be con-
sidered conventional resources.
Unconventional reservoirs cannot produce com-
mercially except by the use of sophisticated drill-
ing methods and extensive hydraulic fracturing
conducted from the very onset of the development
initiative. As opposed to a conventional field, an
unconventional field produces with a much larger
number of wells at a much lower production rate,
requiring the application of numerous optimization
techniques to bring the cost down so as to make
the project economical.
In either case, careful planning and design,
along with the application of high-end technology
for commercial and economic extraction of hydro-
carbon, is required.
A petroleum engineer is responsible for working
with engineers of other disciplines during explora-
Total >85 (MMBPD)
Total >260 billion cubic ft per day (Bcfd)
DAILY OIL PRODUCTION BY COUNTRY IN 2013.
DAILY NATURAL GAS PRODUCTION BY COUNTRY IN 2012.
Trucks carrying state-of-
the-art service equipment
to well sites in the desert.
SOURCE: THE WORLD FACTBOOK, 2013.
SOURCE: THE WORLD FACTBOOK, 2012.
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tion, to development and production, to selecting the most
optimized development plan. The petroleum engineer normal-
ly works very closely with the Exploration team that includes
geologists and geophysicists on estimating hydrocarbon poten-
tial and reserves, and when an exploration is successful and a
discovery is made.
“Reserves” is an important term often used by petroleum
engineers and is defined as the amount of hydrocarbon that
can be commercially produced under current technological
constraints from a certain field. Reserves is closely synony-
mous to the frequently used abbreviation “EUR” that stands
for estimated ultimate recovery. With time, reserves can
increase due to improvement and advancement in technical
capability, application of innovative ideas, lowering of cost,
extension of the developed area, or increase of field volumet-
rics. The reserves numbers are always lower than the ini-
tial hydrocarbon in place, which is defined to be the total
volume of naturally occurring underground accumulations,
producible or not. Reserves divided by the hydrocarbon in
place is known as the recovery factor.
Petroleum engineers are able to continuously update
field delineation more precisely and recompute hydrocar-
bon reserves estimates and the production potential with the
increased data acquired throughout the development phase.
When a delineation drilling confirms the availability of suf-
ficient reserves that will lead to a commercial exploitation
project, the petroleum engineers design the field develop-
ment by evaluating reservoir and hydrocarbon properties,
drilling and completion strategies, complexities, recovery
methods, cost and safety issues.
SAUDI ARABIA: AN EXAMPLE OF EXPLORATION
AND PETROLEUM ENGINEERING
One of the most outstanding examples of oil and gas —
from discovery to production — lies with the history of
Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom granted oil concessions to
Standard Oil of California (Socal, today’s Chevron) in
1933, and the company started drilling exploratory wells
in Dammam in 1935. Dammam-2 produced about 3,800
barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and the company had 1,150
employees. However, the well started producing water and
Dammam-3, 4, 5 and 6 were not promising.
Max Steinke was the chief geologist for Socal and due to
his insistence, vision, hard work, and patience, Dammam-7,
also known as the “prosperity well,” made the most out-
standing discovery, which has led the Kingdom to eventually
become the possessor of 20 percent of world oil reserves.
The Dammam-7 well became the symbol of success that
initially yielded 3,700 bpd, but opened up the vast horizon of
more exploration, delineation and development.
The company name was changed to the Arabian Ameri-
can Oil Company (Aramco) in 1944 and eventually to Saudi
Aramco in 1988.
With the use of best-in-class technology, reservoir and
petroleum engineering practices, application of innovative
ideas and concepts, and above all, the best group of talents
and highly skilled professionals, Saudi Arabia has made itself
into a world-class oil and gas producing champion, providing
the Kingdom and the world with the energy needed to meet
the ever-challenging and growing demand.
Throughout the 80-plus years of history, Saudi Arabia has
become a world leader in exploration, production, refining,
distribution and marketing.
With 121 oil and gas fields, the country possesses 260.2
billion barrels of proven conventional crude oil and conden-
sate reserves and 288.4 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.
In 2013, Saudi Aramco produced 3.4 billion barrels of oil,
about one in every eight barrels of the world’s crude oil pro-
duction and 4 trillion standard cubic feet (Tscf) of natural gas
compared to the world's total production of 125 Tscf.
While the crude oil is for export, Saudi gas production is
entirely dedicated to support the domestic energy consump-
tion: mainly for electricity, de-salination plants, turbines and
machinaries, and downstream industry.
Next time when you drive your car, travel by plane, sit in
your home in air-conditioned comfort, plan your cruise, light
your house, eat ice cream, play golf, or take your medica-
tion, think of the contribution of the petroleum engineers to
A photo of a
rig. Photo by