The drilling industry often wrestles with filling jobs, whether it’s water well contractors trying to keep good mud techs on staff or oil and gas companies trying to find talent trained in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, S.D., has worked to produce quality STEM students for decades. Now, they’re stepping up efforts to fit those STEM students into oil and gas fields with the naming of a new director for their Energy Resources Initiative (ERI). Dan Soeder joins the college this spring from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
SD Mines’ ERI started a few years ago, but Soeder’s placement solidifies its place in the university’s array of offerings for students and its mission to serve the industry.
“The request initially came from industry,” says Heather Wilson, SD Mines president. “The School of Mines is equidistant from the Bakken, the Powder River Basin and the Denver Basin, and so we have energy production all around us. Industry has been hiring from the School of Mines for a long time, but they asked whether we could strengthen particularly the oil and gas elements of our curriculum, both upstream and downstream.”
The university’s response was the creation of the ERI and approval of a new petroleum systems minor to compliment a lineup of majors in other disciplines, like electrical and chemical engineering.
“What it really means is they’ll be able to hire engineers and scientists from the South Dakota School of Mines who, they may have a major in electrical engineering or mining engineering or mechanical engineering, but they will have a minor in petroleum systems. So they will have some extra focus on the energy industry.”
Soeder, for his part, looks forward to formally joining the university.
“I’ve been working on and off with Mines for about four years on a number of different projects,” he says. “I actually got involved with them on an Indian energy project, looking at gas potential in the Niobrara [Formation] on a reservation in South Dakota. The funding came from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and they were working with Mines, and they were working with the tribal college on the reservation, Sinte Gleska University. They brought me in because I have a fairly extensive background in shale gas.
It was a very enjoyable project. I really enjoyed working with the folks, and I really enjoyed working with the students — I don’t get to do enough of that — and I really liked the faculty there. I liked the school. It’s just been great. So when this thing opened up, I applied for it and I’m really happy to be there.”
The Right Vision
The university has a few broad goals for the ERI, high among them being a commitment to serving the industry with important research.
“In five years’ time,” Wilson says, “I hope we have a significant research portfolio related to extractive energy — particularly oil and gas, in Dan’s area of expertise — and that he will have a number of research scientists and PhD. students in geology and working with and for him on sponsored research. … We will be advancing knowledge in research related to energy extraction and production, and we will have a very strong minor, as well as a graduate certificate, in petroleum systems.”
Soeder throws out a couple of ideas for research topics that he thinks could benefit the industry: investigating slow-slip tremors and the integrity of cement in wellbores, particularly horizontal ones that get fracked repeatedly.
“My vision is to have it be a regional petroleum school, basically with a focus in the northern Rocky Mountain basins, but also with applicability worldwide,” he says. “A lot of the operators working in the Rockies are small to mid-sized. They don’t have big research departments if they have any research department at all. And so one of the roles for Mines is to talk to these folks, find out what their issues are that they would like to have researched and study those things.”
Wilson sees the ERI director’s role strengthening SD Mines’ place in the industry.
“I think South Dakota School of Mines has a very long and well-regarded set of relationships with mineral industries and the energy industry,” Wilson says, “and I think five years from now that will only have grown and gotten better.”
The Right Candidate
Soeder brings a wealth of experience to his new role. He’s done extensive work in unconventional oil and gas research, from shale gas to coal-bed methane. He’s also worked on environmental geology and as a hydrologist.
“I have a background both on the petroleum geology side and the environmental geosciences side,” he says. “And I think that combination is very useful. I think that’s what people want these days, is to be able to do both. I think that’s something that I’m bringing to Mines that will be helpful.”
It actually took SD Mines a few years to find the right person for the job.
“We actually had two searches,” Wilson explains. “When we got to the end of the first search, we weren’t really confident that we had the right leader, that we had the right person. And so we searched again. We wanted to get the right person. This is a major initiative for the school. … We want to grow both a research and teaching program here that’s exceptional. To do that, we needed to get the right person.”
SD Mines unveiled plans for the ERI in 2014, and has since raised about $3 million for the effort from alumni and industry supporters. The ERI’s goal is to channel the university’s expertise across multiple departments to build a resource that can help the industry both on and off campus. Wilson says Soeder’s broad experience can achieve that.
“He’s got experience with the Department of Energy, with their National Energy Technology Laboratory back in Morgantown [W.Va.],” she says. “His focus is on shale gas and tight oil and geological sequestration of carbon dioxide. ... The School of Mines has a close connection with the U.S. Geological Survey and he’s previously been a hydrologist for them. We think that his experience in unconventional gas resources is a good fit for us from a research point of view, to be able to do research on the energy issues in the region surrounding us.”
The Right Students
Of course, beyond research and solving industry issues, a university’s lifeblood is the student body and the ultimate goal is to grow the number of students training for oil and gas jobs.
Soeder has some ideas about finding students to work in oil and gas, which can sometimes mean unforgiving and remote locations.
“You have to appeal to the right people,” he says. “You have to be willing to work outdoors, and to go exotic places and travel. Sometimes maybe you ride a camel in – who knows? But there are people that have that sort of sense of adventure.”
He says it’s important for students to understand the cyclical nature of the business, and to be able to roll with it. “There may be a boom going on and they’re paying big bucks, and they’re grabbing everybody off the street and hiring people out of the Wal-Mart parking lot. And then, two years later, everybody’s unemployed. You just have to be able to deal with that.”
He wants the ERI and SD Mines to prepare students as best as possible for the jobs that will meet them. That also includes getting more hands-on experience doing such research in the field.
“It amazes me how many students want to get into oil and gas and don’t understand anything about it,” he says. “They’ve never been out on a drill rig. They’ve never been on a production well. It’s one of those things that people find fascinating, but don’t get exposure to. We aim to fix that, too.”