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Petroleum and Natural Gas Exploration and Production Worker Job Description, Career as a Petroleum and Natural Gas Exploration and Production Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the

Education and Training: None

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Oil and gas are used to produce fuel and to manufacture chemicals, plastics, and other products. Petroleum and natural gas exploration and production workers find sources of oil and gas and work for oil companies or for drilling contractors backed by oil companies. They drill underground or on the ocean floor to bring oil and gas to the surface. Then they treat, store, and transport the crude oil to refineries. Raw gas is often processed near the gas field and piped to storage areas that service communities. Some oil wells may produce both oil and gas. The exploration and production of both materials are much the same.

First, geologists or geophysicists find the areas where oil and gas occur. They are trained in oil exploration. When they find clues to oil or gas deposits, a field crew begins work. The geophysicists usually act as observers. They head a seismic operation where they induce small earthquakes or shocks with explosives or by using a heavy weight to hit the ground. Other workers, known as prospecting computers, measure the sound waves that result from the shocks. These measurements, and an underground map, help the scientists determine whether oil or gas may be present. The scientists also supervise workers who drill below the surface to bring up rocks and clay. They study these substances to find further information about the presence of oil or gas. If the results of these first efforts show that oil or gas may be present, the exploration crew drills a well to see if it strikes oil or gas.

If the scientists decide that it is worthwhile to drill for oil, a steel tower is erected. This tower is called a rig. Then the drilling crew begins work. Rotary Petroleum exploration and production workers often work as part of a team in oil fields. (© Steve Starr/Corbis.) drillers supervise the drilling process by controlling the speed and pressure of large rotary drills. The drill bores a hole in the ground. Then workers insert a hollow steel pipe into the hole. They add sections of pipe until it reaches the oil or gas. Rotary drillers have several helpers. For example, derrick operators sit on platforms high in the rig. They control the mixture of mud and clay forced into the pipe and keep the drill bit from becoming overheated. This mixture also coats the walls of the hole to prevent cave-ins. Derrick operators also bring samples to the surface for the geologists to study. They also handle the upper ends of pipes inserted in the hole. Rotary floorworkers connect the lower ends of pipes to the drill hole. Mechanics operate the engines that provide the power for drilling.

Drilling contractors also employ other field workers. Cementers place cement between the steel pipe and the wall of the well to prevent cave-ins. Acidizers place acid in the well to increase the oil flow. Perforator operators pierce holes in the pipe stem for oil to flow through. Sample-taker operators remove samples from the well to help decide whether oil or gas has been located. Well pullers remove underground pipes and pumps to clean, repair, or replace them. Roustabouts, or roughnecks, are general laborers who work in the fields.

Another group of workers takes over when oil or gas is found. These workers operate and maintain the wells. Sometimes pressure in the well forces the oil to the surface. Here, switchers control the flow of oil from the well into the main pipelines by turning valves. However, about ninety percent of all oil wells need oil pumps. Pumpers operate pumps and compressors and control the flow of oil into the oil pipelines. Gaugers check samples of oil for quality and watch and measure oil flowing into pipes or oil storage tanks. Treaters help purify the crude oil. They remove water and sediment from the storage tanks before they transport the oil to refineries.

Natural gas usually undergoes some processing near the oil or gas field. Dehydration plant operators remove water and other impurities from the gas. Gasoline plant operators operate compressors that raise the pressure of gas to help the flow into pipelines. Gas compressor operators may assist both workers.

Trunk pipelines that bring the oil and gas to the refineries are usually underground. These trunk lines may be thousands of miles long. A trunk line from a Texas oil field may supply oil or gas to Chicago or New York. Workers who lay pipelines are part of construction crews. They may dig trenches or move earth to lay the pipes.

Education and Training Requirements

There are no specific education requirements for many exploration and production jobs. Entry-level positions include roustabouts and field helpers. Entrants train with more skilled workers to gain experience. A high school education is necessary to enter training programs offered by large oil companies. Interested candidates must be in good physical condition to handle the heavy equipment. Engineering aides need only two years of college. A few production and exploration workers may become engineering aides through on-the-job training.

Getting the Job

Apply directly to oil companies. Because nearly all oil producers hire drilling contractors for production work in the United States and in foreign countries, it is advised to apply to contractors as well. State employment and school placement offices may list job openings in the field.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Experienced roustabouts and other oil field helpers advance to positions that offer better pay and more challenging duties. After several years of experience they may become rotary drillers, for example. A few become engineering aides.

The number of jobs in gas and oil exploration and production is expected to decline through the year 2012, but job opportunities depend on oil and gas prices. If they rise considerably, more jobs will result. Also, automation and advances in mining techniques will further decrease the number of jobs in oil well operation. Opportunities will be best in exploration. People will also be needed to replace workers who leave their jobs.

Working Conditions

Well operators and maintenance people usually remain at one drilling location. They work eight hours a day, five days a week. Because well operation goes on twenty-four hours a day, some employees work night, weekend, and holiday shifts. Unlike operating and maintenance workers, drilling and exploration workers must travel. A drilling operation may last a year. Then the crew moves to a new oil or gas field. Exploration crews must find new oil and gas resources. The outdoor work may be done in very hot or very cold climates. Most oil and gas fields are far from towns. Land drilling crews work eight hours a day for seven days and then have a few days off. Offshore drilling crews may live on the rig or on ships located nearby. Offshore workers often work twelve-hour days, seven days a week, and then have a week off. Workers find great satisfaction in teamwork.

Where to Go for More Information

Independent Petroleum Association of America
1201 Fifteenth St. NW, Ste. 300
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 857-4722

Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union
Box 281200
Lakewood, CO 80228-8200
(303) 987-2229

Earnings and Benefits

Wages vary according to experience, job, and employer size. Petroleum drilling workers who are not supervisors earn a median salary of about $18 per hour. Experienced offshore workers earn more. Some workers get additional "sub pay" and reimbursement for expenses incurred. Other benefits might include paid vacations, health insurance, and pensions.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesAgribusiness, Environment, and Natural Resources