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A challenge to academia: Offer a degree in produced water management

PWS board member Brent Halldorson calls on universities to provide specialized education to improve produced water management operations and knowledge transfer.

My son, who is a high school senior, plans to study engineering. That means he would be a third-generation engineer in our family, which makes me very proud. While helping him evaluate schools, I’ve realized that many more engineering programs are offered today than when I went to school.

I’ve been surprised to learn that in addition to the foundational schools of electrical, mechanical, civil and chemical engineering, there are now dozens of other fields. Some universities offer multidisciplinary degrees such as “systems engineering,” while others have specialized programs like architectural, manufacturing and even space flight engineering. It’s excellent that schools are recognizing the need for practical degrees that will truly help graduates enter their specific fields of interest; however, there is still more ground to cover.

Despite being integral to the development of all energy resources, water management has largely been overlooked by academia. Very few such programs are available today (the only one I’m aware of for produced water is offered by Oklahoma State University), but I’m hoping this blog will encourage other schools to take up the challenge. With the rise of hydraulic fracturing and the emergence of a water midstream sector, I believe the time has come.

Oilfield produced water managers have long lamented the lack of university programs aimed at preparing people for the challenges of our work. We have generally learned our lessons the hard way – from first-hand experience in the field. Unfortunately, many of the lessons I’ve learned over the past 25 years have come from mistakes made along the way.

Adding to the challenges in this field is the volatility of the energy sector, as we lose experienced people with each crash, many of whom do not return after the industry recovers. This boom-and-bust cycle has resulted in inefficient knowledge transfer.

Young engineering/technical students would have a tremendous springboard to success if they could learn about the industrial water lifecycle, treatment and disposal options, etc. through a degree program. They would be able to build on the experiences gained from others rather than having to learn all of the hard lessons themselves, and they may be likelier to remain in the field if they’ve committed their education to that specific area.

Currently, most produced water knowledge is locked away in old-timers’ heads or in an industry group repository such as the one PWS is creating online. One silver lining of the COVID-19 nightmare is the development of very high-quality online teaching platforms of which we can take advantage. I am sure that many in PWS, including myself, would be pleased to help teach courses in produced water management, because better preparing students will greatly benefit our industry.

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