Persistently low oil and gas market prices may have led some students to forgo petroleum engineering careers along the Gulf Coast — at least for now. That may turn around, but not necessarily anytime soon.

Numbers on the Louisiana Board of Regents website for LSU and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette tell a story that suggests that, like energy prices, enrollment numbers for petroleum engineering students are in the doldrums and have been for five years. It’s a continuing story.

Prices had plunged to about $26 a barrel of crude oil five years ago this week, creating havoc in the stock market and leading to massive layoffs in the oil and gas industry, especially in the offshore Gulf of Mexico.

Low prices followed action at mid-decade by Saudi Arabia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to drive down the cost of oil worldwide and capture more market share for OPEC. Eventually, that proved to be a losing gambit, as the U.S. racheted up its oil production through new drilling methods at rich oil basins. A surfeit of oil on the global market skewed and kept prices low as available energy products outweighed global need.

An eventual glut of oil on the global market diminished the need for new drilling projects, reduced employment and created big question marks about the future of the industry.

Here’s how students responded to job losses at LSU and UL Lafayette, the only petroleum engineering programs in the state. LSU enrolled 801 petroleum engineering students in fall 2015, 649 in fall 2016, 478 in fall 2017, 327 in fall 2018 and 197 in fall 2019.

At UL Lafayette, the number of petroleum students fell from 551 in fall 2016 to 391 in fall 2017, 235 in fall 2018 and 163 in fall 2019. A year ago, in spring 2020, petroleum engineering majors had slipped to 129.

Karsten Thompson, head of LSU’s petroleum engineering program, said although the number of petroleum engineering students dropped with the mid-decade decline in oil prices, there may have been more students than needed back then even for a robust energy market.

“Just prior to the drop (in oil prices),” he said, enrollment numbers in petroleum engineering were “sky high, larger than our departments could handle.”

He characterized the drop-off in enrollment in the petroleum department as a “correction.”

“LSU stayed stronger than most since then,” he said. “The last couple of years, we’ve had some losses.”

That’s been in part because the industry hasn’t recovered quickly, or as quickly as oil and gas enthusiasts hoped. Students enrolled in petroleum engineering programs have questions about the energy industry’s capacity to recovery and endure.

He said petroleum majors may find that even if and when the auto industry turns toward new sources of energy — solar or electric — there will still be a need for oil and gas. There may be changes in petroleum engineering, he suggested, but most professions encounter change.

Students have questions, he said, and LSU professors try to provide answers. Some professors took time from class recently to explain to students what might happen to the oil and gas industry if President Biden encourages the United States to wean itself off fossil fuels. It won’t mean the end of oil and gas, he said; there will still be a need for oil.

At the University of Houston, Mohamed Soliman, head of the petroleum engineering program, said Friday he expects some continuing decline in the number of undergraduate petroleum engineering students. The department has more than 200 students, he said.

He said he expects that more students will pursue graduate work at UH to improve their knowledge and skill in the field. He said UH is enhancing its curriculum, too. That’s so when energy companies prosper further and renew their hiring, they will find more competitive employee prospects in his department.

“Our seniors are not worried,” he said. “They are getting internships and are being mentored.”

Thompson said that in some cases, LSU students are looking at entering the oil and gas industry through other engineering pursuits, such as chemical, industrial or mechanical engineering.

Overall, he said, the college of engineering is in great shape.

“We might have hit a high for enrollment a couple of years ago. It dipped a little because of COVID.

“Some students can slide over to the computer and take classes online, but most students can’t wait to get back to the classrooms. All of us are social creatures. There’s a strong preference, maybe 75-80 percent, who strongly prefer the classroom experience.”

Professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette were not available for interviews for this article.


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.