“When aspiration and reality collide, in my experience reality wins every time,” said Jeff Miller, chairman, president and CEO of Halliburton, last month at the inaugural Middle East Oil, Gas and Geosciences Show (MEOS GEO) in Bahrain.
He made the remark in the context of a CEO discussion about the industry and its response to the energy transition. The truth of his observation is much broader.
As AAPG identifies and prepares new ways to serve its members and attract new members for decades to come – see President Goolsby’s columns this month and last – it’s important for us to understand the facts, as best we can. If our strategy is to succeed, it must be based on reality.
One reality we face in the United States and Europe is dwindling enrollments in the geosciences, and the jobs these graduates are getting are rapidly changing.
Christopher Keane, director of geoscience profession and higher education at the American Geosciences Institute, and his team in the workforce program at AGI have been monitoring these trends for many years. Their focus is on the United States, but they place these trends in a global context.
Keane presented on the future geoscience workforce last autumn at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting, and the narrative he presented was challenging. It was not hopeless -- not at all. But he stressed that addressing the challenges facing our profession requires decisive and coordinated action.
It’s a message the entire AGI community needs to hear, and the AAPG Foundation Trustees stepped forward to support the presentation last month of “The Changing Face of the Geoscience Workforce”
Cause for Alarm
Geoscientists are doers, and the bulk of working geoscientists are employed with terminal bachelor’s or master’s degrees. They are mostly not academic researchers with doctorates. That’s what makes the enrollment drops we’re seeing since 2016 so alarming. They are across the board, both undergraduate and graduate students, and the decrease in degrees granted is even steeper.
In 2013 close to 80 percent of the geoscience master’s students got jobs in oil and gas. It was 6 percent in 2021 for both undergraduate and graduate students. Recently, mining is seeing significant gains, as is federal and state government hiring.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 9.4-percent decrease in oil and gas employment between 2018 and 2028. That’s a result of decreased employment by large employers – think integrated majors and large independents. But jobs are growing in smaller companies – those that serve the larger players. That’s a persistent trend that is changing how we do geoscience.
A key takeaway from the data is that our workforce issues are chiefly a supply, not a demand problem. There are jobs available, though they may look different than in the past, and we don’t have graduates to fill them.
Expanding Our Pool
Highlighting the continued challenges of diversity in the geosciences, Keane observed that addressing this issue is important both for the inherent value that diverse communities of professionals deliver, but also to confront the demographic reality that if we’re struggling to recruit students into the geosciences we need to expand the pool.
Progress has been negligible over the last 50 years, but Keane highlighted a significant uptick in Hispanic and Latino students pursuing geology since 2017. Hispanic and Latino communities have seen higher college enrollment. That’s part of the answer. But he also credits targeted programs, such as the University of Texas – Austin’s GeoForce program, designed to provide kids in elementary and secondary school with experiences that introduce them to the geosciences. It is evidence that focused and persistent efforts can deliver significant results.
Today’s geology major will be the experienced working professional in the 2060s, and technology and innovation are making a significant impact on their jobs today.
Early last month at the NAPE Business Conference, Devon President and CEO Rick Muncrief gave a dramatic illustration of how this works: In 2014 Muncrief was named CEO of Tulsa-based explorer WPX. At that time, WPX had 1,500 employees and Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy had 6,200 employees. WPX and Devon merged in January 2021 and today the combined company has 1,800 employees. Technology was one of the key factors he mentioned that drove greater efficiency.
Using an example from the mining sector, Keane described how technology doesn’t replace geoscience expertise, it augments it by reducing the amount of time spent wrangling data and freeing up more time to solve the problem.
Solving problems increasingly requires cross-disciplinary skills and, as Keane explains, this results in an “integration evolution” where geoscientists need broad disciplinary competency and one or two “spikes” of deep knowledge.
As I tell students and young professionals, it’s essential that you understand how your contribution to a projects fits into the big picture, how it connects to what everyone else is doing.
A significant challenge, though, is that U.S.-based curricula don’t have time for students to add these additional skills. These additional skills aren’t necessarily difficult to obtain, Keane says, but in a packed schedule, it’s hard to fit them in.
BHP’s Daniel Malchuk put it this way at the minerals-focused Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada annual meeting in 2018:
“With every retirement we destroy a geoscience job. With every new hire we are creating a geoscience job we can’t even begin to describe. The new hires will define these jobs of the future.”
I encourage you to take an hour and watch the webinar. I’m still thinking about the implications of these trends for AAPG as it prepares for the future. Clearly there’s a role for us in attracting and serving a new generation of geoscientists. It will require new levels of creativity and agility far beyond what we’ve mustered to date.
The Ongoing CCUS ‘Gold Rush’
Carbon capture utilization and storage was labeled “a gold rush” by Bloomberg Businessweek in January. Much of it is driven by the 45Q carbon capture and storage tax credit that has significantly changed the economic outlook for CCUS. In August 2022, Congress made major revisions to 45Q, including the amount of tax credit from $45 a tonne to $85 a tonne. Projects must begin construction by 2033 to be eligible. Injection of CO2 into the subsurface has been used for tertiary oil recovery efforts in the Permian Basin of New Mexico and West Texas since the 1970s. However, the permanent storage of CO2, especially in saline reservoirs, is a relatively new enterprise.