Talking gas

The oil & gas sector needs no educating on the severe lack of skilled engineers coming into the industry, especially in a time of major international growth and development.

Fortunately, many engineering graduates are realising the exciting potential of working in the hydrocarbons business – including the excellent remuneration rates, extensive travel, and career development – and are now moving into the large number of positions available worldwide in this buoyant sector.

But what makes a great hydrocarbons engineer, and how can companies best develop their workforce and encourage more people to work in the industry?

We asked two of the world’s leading hydrocarbons engineers what lessons could be learned from their own illustrious careers in the business.

Charlie Durr  – KBR


Charlie Durr joined KBR in 1969 and throughout an illustrious 43 year-long career has focussed on the design and execution of large natural gas plants around the world, with an emphasis in liquefied natural gas (LNG) and Gas to Liquids (GTL). A Chemical Engineer, he graduated in 1969 with an M.S. degree from Manhattan College, New York. Currently, his primary focus is the development, application and execution of LNG and Gas Processing technologies.

When did you realise you wanted to be an engineer and why?

In my early school days, I was good in maths and science and it seemed logical to pursue what I do best. When I got around to deciding what particular career in engineering to pursue, I have to admit that in many ways the natural gas business picked me by chance rather than my picking it. When I joined KBR in New York, there were five new college graduates joining that week. We were all assigned to different areas and I just so happened to be assigned to natural gas area. The predictions were that natural gas was going to be the fuel of the future. I believed it and decided to stay in the sector. 

Which new innovations could have the greatest impact on the direction of the industry over coming years?

The greatest developments in the future will come from engineering teams working closely together to establish terrific designs that are cost effective, reliable and safe.  Also in the building of large plants there are, in effect, two teams that need to work closely together. There is the team that has the vision in the design of what the plant should look like over the next 40 years, and there is the team that is responsible for getting it there. To consider that only one team is the most important is foolhardy, like trying to clap with one hand.

What is going to motivate and inspire more young people to work in hydrocarbons engineering, and how will gas & oil compete against more ‘appealing’ so-called ‘greener’ industries?

I suspect there will be many engineers who will dedicate themselves to working on concepts that will come to fruition in decades to come, more or less what I was doing in the early days of LNG business. There will also be a need to work on transitional industries that will be the bridge to the future. In the end an individual engineer should decide which approach works bests with his particular interest and skills. In my family we have a saying – “you are unique, just like everyone else”. The point being that an engineer needs to focus on the future and on whatever turns him or her on; and be ready to make changes in your career path.

Describe what it takes to make a great engineer?

The pursuit of the facts is very important. As is an ability to dig in further until you really understand what you are really doing. How many times have you made a decision and you find out one more fact that totally changes your view? This is very true in engineering. These concepts combined with excellent risk management, communications and ability to work in teams will take an engineer very far.

David Messersmith, Manager of LNG Technology & Services Group, Bechtel


David graduated from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in 1977 and began working for MW Kellogg in Houston as a Systems Engineer. After working in a number of different technology areas he moved to BechteI in 1991. 

When did you realise you wanted to be an engineer and why?

As I was finishing high school, I was uncertain what engineers did. I know I loved chemistry and trusted my chemistry teacher so I talked with him and he helped me with some direction. I started school and decided that there was enough flexibility that I could have a decent career and work out the details as I went along.

Which new innovations  could have the greatest impact on the direction of the industry in the coming years? 

I think over the past years the developments in compressor/turbine and exchanger technology have improved our ability to take advantage of scale. Also the computing abilities for modelling and visualisation have greatly improved our knowledge and allowed us to get closer to the edge of possibilities.

What is going to motivate and inspire more young people to work in hydrocarbons engineering, and how will gas & oil compete against more ‘appealing’ so-called ‘greener’ industries?

I think the more we can present to them that engineering long term solutions rather than jump on the wagon for the next popular political idea we will go a long way to encourage them to get the education they need to participate in the solution rather then become part of the problem.

Describe what it takes to make a great engineer?

Flexibility and diligence. Flexibility to respond to the needs of a problem or project idea. And diligence to stick with it and find a solution.

The growth of the natural gas & liquefied natural gas (LNG) industries is significant and projected to increase considerably over the next 30 years. What other key uses do you see for gas as a lower-carbon fossil fuel as part of a ‘greener’ future energy mix?

The availability and therefore the lower price of gas is the biggest benefit to expansion of the infrastructure without breaking the bank. We need to be careful to value the energy for what it provides and not take advantage to the detriment of our long term energy goals.

What particular project have you worked on that gives you the greatest sense of pride & satisfaction?

When I started on the Atlantic LNG project in 1996, we started with a clean sheet of paper and were developing something new for the LNG industry. In less than 3 years I was fortunate enough to participate in the start up, testing and turnover to our client. That was the first project in my career that I was working on it from beginning to end. That was extremely challenging and rewarding at the same time. This was a 3:1 scale up of the previous use of this liquefaction technology, use of large scale compressors in parallel operation, use of complex modelling to mitigate design and performance risk, and use of novel site preparation techniques to improve schedule. All of that and it was done as a lump sum contract that finished ahead of schedule, with less than 2% scope creep, and exceeded all performance targets.