Are you thinking about becoming a Geology major in college? It is not a bad idea, and job prospects are pretty bright in the long run. When examining the economy from a fundamental point of view, geologists in general, and petroleum geologists in particular, have a very bright future. This should not surprise you. After all, who do you think is in charge of finding new sources of petroleum, gas, metals and other minerals? These are all critical raw materials in great need by the world’s economies as they become more and more industrialized. So who hires geologists? Besides the universities and the government sector, the major employers are the mining industry and the oil and gas industry.
In general, the energy sector pays the highest salaries to geologists. If they are suitably qualified to find new oil fields, that is. A Geology major with an appropriate Masters degree can earn anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000. This is just the base salary and does not include sign-on bonuses, annual bonuses and performance bonuses. This is based on a report made by the American Geologic Institute on the job prospects of new petroleum geologists. An experienced petroleum geologist’s salary on an oil rig can add 50% to that. According to the University of Houston, 10 years of experience is worth up to $132,132 per year (on average). This is the sort of salary that even CEOs of small companies will envy.
But how are the job prospects for a geologist in the oil industry today? After all, we are just starting to recover from a major recession, and then the environmental disaster caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico hit. The environmentalists are using this incident as a rallying cry to ban deep water oil drilling and move the world away from oil consumption. They have long been agitating for green energy, and the Deepwater Horizon accident has only made them more active.
However, they are not likely to have any impact on oil exploration and oil drilling. It is not because there is too much money in the oil industry. The simple fact is that the biggest oil companies in the world are major stakeholders in several green energy projects. One example is BP’s Oorja stove project in India, designed to help reduce the impact of traditional cooking methods on global warming.
This may seem surprising to some, but the oil companies really have a vested interest in moving the world away from burning oil. Why? Because cheap oil that is easy to extract is starting to run out. Most of the new oil fields being discovered lie more than 1,500 feet below the ocean and are quite far offshore. Those oil fields that are not deep beneath the ocean are like the Canadian tar sands or the oil shales in the western United States, where the oil is heavy and requires even more specialized and expensive methods of extraction. If alternative energies are not well developed by the time cheap oil runs out, the world is going to have to choose between burning oil for cars and using oil to make plastics, fertilizers and pesticides. No matter what, the oil drilling companies have to find new sources of oil. They know that well. For example, Exxon invests between $25 billion and $30 billion every year in oil exploration and production. This equates to somewhere around $79 million a day.
So let us get back to the question of what your salary will be as a geologist on an oil rig. Pending a new survey, there is not likely to be much change. You probably won’t get any sign-on bonus if you get recruited this year (2010), and bonuses are likely to be depressed for a while (especially for BP, TransOcean and Halliburton employees). Ditto for your retirement benefits, e.g. 401(k), etc. But if you just graduated high school, taking up Geology in college this year, next year (2011) or even the next few years is likely to prove advantageous. Due to the oil glut in the 1980s, when the price of oil dipped below $10 per barrel, the oil companies stopped hiring many workers, including their petroleum geologists. Because of this, there was a serious shortage of qualified oil workers when the economy started booming in the mid-2000s and demand for oil started forcing oil prices above $100 per barrel. Even in 2009, the middle of the recession, oil prices hovered around $50 to $60 per barrel, which means that job prospects and salaries for geologists and other drilling jobs in the oil industry remain positive.
Worse still (at least from the point of view of the oil companies) is the fact that it takes four years of study in college for a student to become a geologist. After that, it is another two to five years for a suitable Masters degree, and another four or five years of on-the-job training before a newly hired geologist becomes productive. As a petroleum geologist, you can expect your employer to spend $30000 to $50000 a year keeping you trained and up to spec on the latest oil exploration technologies over the next decade.
As a petroleum geologist, do not expect to spend much time in an air-conditioned office. You will be doing a lot of field work, whether on land or offshore on a survey ship. While the usual cycle of duty for most offshore oil field jobs is two weeks of work followed by two weeks off, an exploratory geologist on a deep sea survey drillship can sometimes spend six weeks on and six week off. Obviously, this depends on the employer.
Basically speaking, a good petroleum geologist who can find new oil fields is always in great demand. Remember that the world still runs on oil, whether to burn as fuel or to turn into plastic, fertilizer and pesticides for use in growing food. It is a profession that is critical to the industrialized world. This is reflected in the high salaries of geologists working in the oil industry.
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