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How to build a career in the oil and gas industry

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Working in the Far North or in an office in St. Petersburg? Onshore or offshore field? On the staff of a foreign or Russian company? The mineral and raw materials complex of Russia provides differentiated scenarios of career development for core specialists. Viktor Feller, a graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University, has had time to work on various projects and today holds the position of Chief Expert of Offshore Projects Expertise Department at PAO Gazprom.

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The specialty associated with the development and exploitation of oil and gas fields existed at the Mining Institute until the middle of the 20th century. Then it was liquidated.

In the second half of the 1990s, the oldest higher technical school in Russia renewed the enrollment of students in this field. World tendencies taken into account, specialists in hydrocarbon production are in great demand in the petroleum age, especially in a country with such rich reserves as ours. Initially, the training was conducted at the Department of Ore Deposits Development (1996-1997), Department of Underground Deposits Development (1998-2003), and the Department of Well Drilling Technology and Equipment (2004-2005). To improve the quality of training, the Department of Development and Exploitation of oil and Gas Fields was established at Mining University.

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Victor Feller entered the university in 1999 and was one of the first students in this speciality.

“By the beginning of my studies, the oil and gas laboratory base of the university was practically non-existent. Only the drilling department stood out against the general background. At the same time, thanks to the university’s contacts with oil-producing companies, we had practical training in the fields. After my second year, I got trained and received my certificate as an oil and gas production operator of the 3rd category, and after my third year of studies, I went to Nefteyugansk to do my practical training at one of Yukos’ subdivisions. Although it mostly consisted of fieldwork, there we developed such competencies as teamwork, the ability to think methodically, and take responsibility for our own decisions. But most importantly, we received incredible motivation for further growth through the advice of experienced oilmen, physical work, millions of tons of oil under our feet, and through swarms of mosquitoes and midges. By the end of my postgraduate studies in 2007-2008, the institute was no longer recognizable thanks to the modernization of the teaching process, laboratory facilities, and scientific activity in general. For example, the laboratory of enhanced oil recovery had got installations designed for core tests. Today such fundamental research is a common practice when assessing geological and physical properties of reservoir rocks. Determination of core samples properties, their permeability, and porosity allows to perform correct and reliable reserves estimation as well as to form field development projects. At the time, only one research institute in Russia had a unit of this caliber,” says the chief expert from Gazprom’s Expert Examination Department.

Victor Feller recalls how the rocking machine was brought to the Neftyanik training facility in Sablino from Surgutneftegas, and what a rush it caused among the students.

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“Currently, the scope of topics within the existing scientific centers of the university is extremely broad and allows young people to develop almost any of the existing areas of the oil and gas industry. The Center of Competencies in Engineering and Technology of Field Development in Arctic Conditions alone is worth a lot. There is no need to be too shy here! During the last years, the scientific value of works of post-graduate students has acquired a completely different quality level. For example, at present young scientists under the supervision of teachers carry out realization of the long-term contract with PAO Gazprom Neft for research works on selection and development of new compounding liquids for oil wells killing, which are further used at the producing objects of the company. Students are often involved in all these researches. It is safe to say that the quality of our graduates has considerably improved in comparison with 10-15 years ago,” says Victor Feller.

After postgraduate school, he worked for two years as an assistant professor at the department. Despite his great interest in science, he realized that to progress, he needed to “dive into the actual process.”

In 2008, the implementation of the large oil and gas project Sakhalin-1 began. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, over three dozen oil and gas fields were discovered on the northeastern shelf of Sakhalin Island. To develop them, several projects were created under the general name of Sakhalin. They were supposed to be developed by foreign investors and operators under production sharing agreements (PSAs). As a result, Sakhalin-1, Sakhalin-2, and Sakhalin-3 are now underway. Participants in the first of those are Exxon Neftegas Limited (USA), SODECO, Mitsubishi, Mitsui (Japan), ONGC (India), and Rosneft.

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“I was lucky to get to Odoptu. It’s one of the two Sakhalin 1 fields offshore the Sea of Okhotsk. I became a drilling monitoring foreman and later a data processing engineer for a French company called Geoservices. This is a subdivision of Schlumberger Oilfield Services, which was engaged in technical support of drilling wells on offshore objects. My main tasks were to monitor drilling parameters to make sure the well was safe and to monitor manifestations. The entire drilling site is equipped with a huge number of sensors and controllers. The data are continuously collected and analyzed. If the current values deviate from the design values, the necessary corrections are made. To understand the level of responsibility, I will make one clarification. To get a normal flow rate in Odoptu field you need to drill a well with a length of 10 km (the traditional length varies from 1.5 to 3.5 km). As a result, we participated in the creation of several world records. For example, the OR-11 set a world record both in terms of driving length - 12,345 meters, and the length of the horizontal shaft - 11,475 meters. Today, a 15,000-meter well was drilled from the Orlan platform. It was a serious experience that you don’t get sitting in an office or a laboratory,” recalls Victor Feller.

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The expert has had time to work at all Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 fields - the Yastreb drilling rig at the Odoptu and Chayvo fields, the Molikpaq oil platform, and the Lun-A gas platform. The island’s reservoir conditions are exceptional, so well construction is always risky.

“The drilling experience I gained there and working in a team with world leaders was the basis on which I stand today and which helps in building a career,” Victor Feller believes.

Today he recalls that it was not easy to get a job at Geoservices, a European company. It was necessary to prove a good knowledge of a foreign language and to write a test to evaluate professional qualifications. It was a “book with about 500 questions.” In addition, the test included several interviews with supervisors.

“It turned out to be quite feasible because after studying and working at the university I was well-versed in technology and equipment. The company quickly understood this and offered me a place on the staff. However, regardless of the level of the young employee, at first, they will not be allowed to work in serious technological processes. Safety requirements dictate their terms. Until the graduate is familiar with the entire production process, there is no trust in them. Moreover, at first, they have to wear a green helmet as a warning sign. Literally. Also, ideally, they provide a specialist supervisor who accompanies them to the site. This is a worldwide practice aimed at eliminating any risks and accidents,” explains Viktor Feller.

He worked on a shift schedule of four weeks work/four weeks off. For five years the engineer lived between St. Petersburg and Sakhalin. It became a peculiar way of life – flights of many hours, countering jetlag, impossibility to be near his family, and many other things. That’s why, even though such projects provide indispensable experience, they most often remain a temporary phenomenon. A great start to subsequent successes.

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© Из личного архива

“It came to my attention that PAO Gazprom’s Department for Expert Examination of Offshore Projects was looking for a chief expert and submitted my resume. My background made the company interested: a Ph.D. candidate with fieldwork experience at complex production facilities both then and now, is considered a great rarity. I successfully passed several interviews and completed a test assignment, which I did in Sakhalin during a forced week-long break while waiting for flying weather before going to Molikpaq. So, today I’m coordinating the construction of Gazprom’s Far Eastern offshore projects, specifically the Sakhalin-3 gas-condensate fields. We review design solutions and cost estimates before their approval by the company, improve the economic efficiency of the company’s projects, and work with the contractor on equipment selection, justification, and adjustment of proposed design solutions. In terms of technology, almost always there are ways to better adjust solutions and as a result, reduce the cost of the entire field development. I am currently working on one of the most pressing issues in the industry,” says the Mining University graduate.

According to him, salaries in foreign and Russian oil and gas producing companies are comparable in similar positions. The only difference is that foreign operators are ready to provide ex-pats with a bit more income when they start a project. This trend is characteristic of all countries involved in mining and can be explained by the need to motivate specialists to relocate temporarily. However, companies tend to minimize the number of personnel invited from other countries in the course of implementation of their tasks, and the level of salaries evens out.

Today Victor Feller is regularly invited to his alma mater to take part in the state examinations and to work with students in educational work. As part of his visits, the expert shares the practical experience with future industry professionals.

“The loudspeakers most everywhere predict the sunset of the oil age. But still most of the machinery - automotive, aviation, and marine - consumes liquid gold. Over time, this trend will subside, but oil will inevitably remain a sought-after commodity for the production of chemical products. We will move into the gas age, which will also end sooner or later. And I have a suspicion that society will go back to coal unless it finds an adequate way to collect and store clean energy," concludes the expert.