September 27, 2006
Department of Petroleum Engineering adopts new name and broader mission 'beyond petroleum'
By Mark Shwartz
After a half-century of training students to become leaders in the oil and gas industry, the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Stanford University has changed its name and expanded its academic mission. While continuing to offer master's and doctoral degrees in petroleum engineering, the newly christened Department of Energy Resources Engineering also plans to add a new curriculum for graduates and undergraduates interested in pursuing broader careers in energy and conservation.
"The decision to change the name and the focus of the department was made last January at a faculty retreat," said Lou Durlofsky, professor of energy resources engineering and chair of the new department. "It's really a reflection of the evolving energy landscape and a recognition that the things we've been doing traditionally may not be the exciting or important areas of research in 10 or 20 years."
The first course in petroleum technology at Stanford was offered in 1914. The Department of Petroleum Engineering was established in 1957 in what is now called the School of Earth Sciences. In 1993, the school was reorganized into three departments: Petroleum Engineering, Geophysics, and Geological and Environmental Sciences.
The original mission of the Department of Petroleum Engineering was "to serve the international petroleum and related industries through the development of both people and tools for reservoir management."
But the global energy picture has changed in the last 50 years, Durlofsky said, and he and the other eight faculty members felt it was time for the department to change as well. "In the future, we will have to move toward unconventional oil and gas, which is more difficult to produce," he said. "We'll also have to find ways to reduce the environmental impacts of this production."
Many faculty members in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering have expertise in fields other than traditional petroleum production, noted Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences. "While I know the department will not turn its back on petroleum, current and new faculty will increase the diversity of energy research and allow the department and its students to evolve as society's energy needs and environmental concerns change," she said.
In addition to developing new techniques for maximizing oil and gas recovery, for example, the department has been a leader in geothermal energy, a process that involves trapping heat from underground geysers and other natural sources. Geothermal production emits virtually no greenhouse gases and is the second biggest source of renewable energy in the United States. Other renewable resources, such as wave and tidal energy, may join the departmental research agenda in the future, Durlofsky said.
"Renewables are of course a key part of the overall energy picture, and these are addressed in other departments at Stanford," he noted. "Our emphasis will continue to be on the subsurface energy supply, so this is certainly not an about-face for the department. But we do recognize that the energy mix in the future is likely to be much different than it's been, and that there will be much more of a concern for environmental issues, especially CO2 [emissions]."
Although often ranked among the top graduate programs in the country, the Department of Petroleum Engineering has not awarded a bachelor's degree in 10 years. The new curriculum may entice undergraduates who would otherwise be reluctant to enroll in the program, said Roland Horne, professor of energy resources engineering, who recently stepped down after more than a decade as department chair.
"We're the one department on campus focused entirely on energy, but our curriculum had become inaccessible to undergraduates," he said. "Most of our graduates are hired by the oil industry. But the new undergraduate degree is also designed for someone interested in working for a state energy regulator or non-governmental energy conservation groups, for example. I think there are lots of students at Stanford in that category. They're interested in a career in energy, but they don't want to be petroleum engineers or work for the oil industry."
Throughout its history, the department has enjoyed strong financial and technical support from virtually every major oil company, and that support is expected to continue, Horne added. "The oil companies have been surprisingly very positive about the new department," he said. "Corporations like Chevron and BP consider themselves energy companies now'beyond petroleum.' They also realize that they're facing a shortage of engineers. One survey found that by 2008, 80 percent of all engineers and scientists in the oil industry will be eligible for retirement. So companies are superbly keen to find and hire qualified students."
The department is looking for at least one new faculty member from a field outside of traditional petroleum engineering, he added. Meanwhile, the proposal for new bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in energy resources engineering is under consideration by committees of the university's Faculty Senate.