Demonizing Oil Claims Another Casualty: Petroleum Engineers

University of Wyoming graduate Linnae Lueken said the reason there are so few petroleum engineering graduates now is because oil companies let critics stomp all over them by not challenging anti-fossil fuel rhetoric.

August 10, 20236 min read

As the number of people pursuing careers in petroleum engineering wanes, those left are questioning why oil companies aren't doing more to stick up for their industry.
As the number of people pursuing careers in petroleum engineering wanes, those left are questioning why oil companies aren't doing more to stick up for their industry. (Getty Images)

Despite the attractive salaries they offer, oil companies are having a hard time finding enough petroleum engineers, and universities are graduating fewer petroleum engineers than ever. 

Linnae Lueken, research fellow with the Heartland Institute, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Wyoming. 

She told Cowboy State Daily that the policies of the Biden administration, what kids are taught about fossil fuels in public school classrooms and the media are a big part of the problem.

But, Lueken said, the oil companies and industry associations also are to blame. Rather than defend themselves against those who demonize them, they largely roll over and take it. 

Rod Guice is a petroleum engineer working in Bakersfield, California. He has more than 45 years of experience and is trying to encourage the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) to do more to defend the industry and support those entering the field.

“We're going to need fossil fuels for many, many decades to come. And if we don't have people to do it, we're going to be in trouble,” Guice told Cowboy State Daily. 

Presidential Influence

According to an annual survey of universities by Lloyd Heinze, a professor at Texas Tech University, the 25 schools that responded expect to award 679 bachelor of science degrees in petroleum engineering this year. That’s down from 921 in 2022, or 26% fewer petroleum engineering grads.

U.S. Department of Education figures show that between 2016 and 2021, the number of petroleum-engineering graduates fell by half. 

Lueken said the rhetoric out of the Biden administration has an influence over young people not considering careers in oil and gas. Claims to eliminate fossil fuels in the United States send the message that young people shouldn’t even consider working in those fields.

“It would be a mistake to ignore the impact of having a presidential administration that says that they're going to end oil and gas in the United States,” Lueken said. 

Bad Influences

Some young people also are deterred from careers in petroleum because of how the media portrays the industry as evil, she said.

Lueken said that every time there’s bad weather somewhere on the planet, the media blame fossil fuels. 

Likewise, the public school system curriculum is often steeped in anti-fossil fuel rhetoric. 

“That’s a message that’s drilled into kids' heads starting in elementary school,” she said. 

All of these influences not only deter young people from pursuing careers in oil and gas, they have people working in the industry today looking for ways to make career changes.

Leuken worked on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and said some of her colleagues were looking into learning computer coding in anticipation that the industry would be gone in a few years. 

Not Leaving

Despite fossil fuels being the source of 82% of the world’s energy — a figure that has remained largely unchanged for three decades — as well as the basis for thousands of products, many come to think fossil fuels are on their way out. 

While there are a lot of nations and cities setting targets to run without fossil fuels in the next few decades, anyone that’s actually tried has failed to convert their electrical grid to primarily wind and solar. 

And electricity is only about 20% of the energy the globe uses. Eliminating fossil fuels from industry and transportation, in addition to electricity production, anytime soon is also highly doubtful

Eaten Last

Demand for fossil fuels remains unchanged, and oil companies are making solid profits. 

Lueken said that if oil companies are going to attract more talent, they’re going to have to start speaking more positively about their product. 

Rather than defending the product they produce and instilling a sense of pride in their employees, she said they talk a lot about transitioning away from the product they produce. They also speak of it in a very apologetic tone, as if they’re doing something wrong. 

“It's very disheartening,” Lueken said. 

She believes that faced with the political inertia bearing down on them, they are trying not to draw attention to themselves. 

“They’re trying to get eaten last,” she said. 

There are exceptions, such as Liberty Energy Inc., which goes out of its way to defend itself and respond to critics. 

There are some smaller associations, such as the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, whose president, Tim Stewart, doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind. 

Ryan McConnaughey, spokesperson for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said it can be hard for associations to combat the rhetoric that comes out of well-financed organizations that are fighting to destroy oil and gas.

“The Petroleum Association of Wyoming works tirelessly to defend the industry,” McConnaughey said. “We certainly do our best here to be an advocate.”

Join The Frontline 

Guice said that the Society of Petroleum Engineers tries to stay out of politics and stick mainly to technical matters. Meanwhile, it holds seminars on the energy transition away from fossil fuels. 

He recently wrote a letter to the Society of Professional Engineers, encouraging them to do more to discuss the benefits of fossil fuels and challenge those who deny those benefits. 

“I’m proposing that the SPE join the frontline in debunking anti-oil and gas bias and climate alarmism by providing educational materials, bringing in distinguished lecturers on the subject, holding related symposiums and discussion panels,” Guice wrote. 

He only recently sent the letter and isn’t sure what kind of response he’ll get, but he’s hoping they’ll listen. 

Hands-On Career 

Lueken pursued a career in oil and gas because she loved science and wanted to do something that was more hands-on. 

“I’m not a computer models type of person,” Lueken said. 

She said she enjoyed the petroleum engineering program at UW. 

“I loved it,” she said. “We had a couple of professors who were just on fire.” 

She said they had just set up the drilling simulator when she was getting ready to graduate. 

“It’s a phenomenal way to show people how it works, all the moving parts of a drilling operation,” Lueken said.

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