Web Extra Tuesday, April 29

Students scarce for petroleum sector

The natural gas industry is concerned about student trends that could further aggravate already volatile natural gas prices. That was one message coming out of a recent meeting examining natural gas supply and demand.

After a season of record high natural gases prices that coincided with efforts on Capitol Hill to develop a comprehensive energy policy, the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) committee on natural gas held a workshop on April 20. Including participation from science, policy and industry leaders, the meeting sought to examine the role of natural gas within the overall energy picture now and in the future. Although estimates on supply varied, many of the participating geoscientists agreed the greatest hindrance to the natural gas industry might not be a lack of energy resources, but rather a lack of financial and human resources.

"We are not preparing for what we will need 25 years or 75 years from now in terms of meeting our energy needs," said Naresh Kumar, president of Growth Oil and Gas in Dallas. According to Richard Smalley, 1996 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry and a workshop speaker, the number of physical science students in the United States is not keeping up with the gross domestic product. By 2010, he said, 90 percent of the Ph.D.s in physical sciences and engineering will be awarded in Asia. "Our best students are going to law school," Kumar said.

Students need once again to become excited about science, similar to the motivation prompted by the launch of Sputnik during the Cold War, Smalley said. The terrorist attacks of September 11 could potentially provide the motivation, Kumar said; but while fear has inspired changes in some areas, it hasn't yet increased interest in the sciences, he added. "The problem is not just in geology; the problem is tuning our kids into science and engineering right from the beginning," he said.

NRC committee member John Curtis of the Colorado School of Mines described a recent unpublished survey by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), which polled 17 petroleum companies on their recruiting efforts. The six companies that responded to the survey reported that they have seen a decline in available students over the past three years, but not in the quality of the new hires.

Growth of natural gas consumption and production is predicted to continue, according to Mary Hutzler, director of the Office of Integrated Analysis and Forecasting for the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas is the fuel of choice for electricity generation because of its low capital cost, and because it produces lower emissions than other fossil fuels, she said.

Many speakers suggested that to meet the increased demand, unconventional sources — low permeability "tight" sands, coalbed methane and shale gas — and imported natural gas will increase their share in the marketplace, as conventional supplies decrease and technology improves. But, according to Ben Law of Pangea Hydrocarbon Explorations, increased research and development funding, improved technologies and improved education are necessary to fully take advantage of the nation's vast untapped unconventional resources.

Charna Meth
Government Affairs Intern
Lisa M. Pinsker contributed to this report.

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