Hydraulic Fracturing Today – And Tomorrow

Editor’s note.  With the price of oil as low as it’s been in a very long time, there is little question that these are challenging times for the oil and gas industry.  Recently, ME Today talked with two leading industry professionals – Frank Adamek, Chief Consulting Engineer at GE Oil & Gas Drilling and Surface, and Blake Burnette, Senior Technical Advisor at Baker Hughes – to hear their perspectives on how a young engineer interested in getting into hydraulic fracturing might best proceed.  These interviews are edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What advice would you have for a young engineer today who’s ambitious to make hydraulic fracturing their area of expertise?

Adamek: To find your way into hydraulic fracturing today, you need to know the specifications, the equipment and the processes.  The geology of the shale is very important, as is the basic knowledge of how to unlock oil from the rock formations themselves.  A candidate needs both a strong understanding of the equipment and to have taken the right courses, not only in geology but also in petroleum engineering.

Burnette: Conventional wisdom would say that it’s a tough time to break into the field now.  But remember: the greatest minds in [our] industry joined during the crash in the early 1980s.  They did what I would advise young engineers to do today: work lower level jobs to gain that absolutely invaluable experience.  I had a friend – now a highly respected senior-level industry professional – who drove trucks in the 1980s just as his way to get in.  He did everything, learned everything, and he has made a great career.

So I say: go to the districts, go to North Dakota, accept a job as a fluid technician, work your way into the engineering positions. You will gain so much expertise. As the market recovers – and it will – you will be perceived as a leader.

Q: What are the most important differences in this industry today compared to five or ten years ago? 

Adamek: The industry is moving faster now.  The knowledge you get at school becomes obsolete quicker.  You have to continue learning, either in-house or in on-the-job training.  Think about it: five or six years ago hydraulic fracturing was in its infancy, and the U.S. was still an [oil] importer.  Now we’ve become an exporter.  It’s a total turnaround in just these few years.  We engineers have to grow with our industry.  Now, as we’re getting into horizontal wells and optimization, we’re looking at costs much more deeply. 

Burnette: During the last boom, shale extraction was new technology.  [Hydraulic fracturing] has been around since the 1940s, but only in the 2000s did some very smart people think of combining horizontal drilling with multi-stage fracturing.  When everybody turned their attention to shale, we had the rush into new fields, North Dakota and so on, and that revolutionized everything.

But as that was going on, a lot of profit was being left on the table. The industry’s focus was on speed.  Everybody’s metrics were based on getting the wells drilled and completed and producing as quickly as possible.  Much less attention was paid to finding economic efficiencies. But people now are going back and reworking those metrics, to figure out how to do the job more efficiently. 

Young engineers looking to enter our sector now should work on finding ways to apply new technology to reducing the costs their companies face.  Even five years ago a young person advocating for a focus on efficiency might have been ignored, but now everybody is on a hunt for technologies to save money. 

Q: What don’t young engineers understand about the sector that they should?  What piece of conventional wisdom deserves another look?

Adamek: You have to know how to be a team player.  You have ME’s, EE’s, and structural engineers, all working together to solve big challenges.  Which means you will need soft skills: how to listen, communicate, how to sell your ideas.  How to speak in front of people. You have to learn to sell your ideas and thoughts.

For this reason, I would even more strongly recommend joining a volunteer organization like ASME.  A leadership position there helps you gain those skills and exercise them, so that you can bring them back into your job.  Not much is more important than that. 

Burnette: I would say the value of hands-on experience should be emphasized.  There’s a perception out there that the oil field is low tech, but in fact there are areas of the oil industry that are extremely high tech.  And there are significant opportunities for technical innovation.  Remember also that this industry now generates enormous amounts of data.  Opportunities are growing for young engineers to gather and analyze that data.  This industry is looking to become more efficient, and data analytics are how we’ll get there.  Be a part of it.

Lastly, I would say you need to be prepared to move around, geographically.  I have personally had the chance to work in 25 countries – experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.  It’s a very exciting opportunity for young people, but you should be prepared and know that part of this business is that you will need to move around and follow it where it goes. 

Q: What do you anticipate for this industry in 5, 10 or 20 years? 

Burnette: Much as I am a fan of renewables, I have to think that a lot of cars are going to run on gas for a very long time to come.  We as a nation will continue to depend on oil for a long time to come.  The United States will keep moving towards energy independence, yes.  And other countries will produce the shale reserves that they have.  But the main thing to bear in mind is that we will keep producing shale oil, and -- you can bet on it -- this industry is going to bounce back and thrive again.