The X-Factor in PE: Women in the Industry

Employment of petroleum engineers is projected to grow 15% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. There is a strong movement within the industry and among the companies that comprise it to ensure that as this growth occurs, the percentage of women in the global workforce and in senior positions also grows. Increased gender diversity has been proven to benefit organizational performance through higher-quality teamwork, improved problem solving, greater creativity, and ­lower-risk decision making, as exemplified by the women interviewed for this article.

 Vicki Hollub, Occidental Petroleum

Vicki Hollub, president and chief operating officer of Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), is the first female CEO of a major US oil company. She was appointed CEO in April 2016 during a severe downturn in the industry.

Under Hollub, Oxy cut production costs in response to falling crude prices, but decided not to lay off employees, and focused instead on existing core operations in the Middle East, the US, and Colombia, and selling low-yield fields in the US and Middle East.

Commenting on her decision not to lay off employees, Hollub said, “There were some who questioned us and thought we were neglecting our fiduciary duty to lower costs. But we knew that the talent and expertise in our company afforded us a much bigger opportunity to lower our cost structure by significantly improving our capital efficiency and lowering operating costs.”

Hollub placed particular emphasis on the Permian Basin, where she had been actively involved in operations and management since 2007, and which had been a consistent driver of profits. By July 2017, half of Oxy’s output was coming from the Permian Basin, with the other half from Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Colombia. At that time, Forbes magazine wrote that Hollub’s focus on high-producing oil fields had made Occidental “leaner” and “poised to gusher cash for the next half-­century.” Oxy outperformed the market in 2017 despite depressed oil prices globally, with shares up more than 25% year over year.

Since 2008, Fortune has ranked Oxy No. 1 every year in its Most Admired Companies in Mining, Crude Oil Production ranking.

Asked about her career planning, Hollub said, “I stumbled into this industry almost accidentally and have enjoyed almost every minute of it. I wanted to be the best petroleum engineer I could be. I never aspired to become CEO. I loved operations and the technical challenges of our industry.”

In fact, she said, her biggest challenge has been transitioning from operations to CEO.

“Part of the challenge is the isolation. There are issues you can’t discuss with anyone internally or externally. Another challenge is learning how to provide sufficient clarity about the strength of our story to the investment community.”

Regarding mistakes, Hollub said, “I’ve learned more from my mistakes than from successes, so I call them my learning experiences. I want our employees to view mistakes the same way. We learn from them and should share them to help others avoid the same ones.”  

She recalled some of her biggest mistakes coming from trying to fix a problem before telling anyone because she was embarrassed to admit she had gotten in over her head or things weren’t going according to plan.

“In a couple of cases, I waited so late that, by the time I asked for help, the project was too far along to get back to plan. This undermined value for our company and bothered me for a long time. Communication early and often especially when an issue is critical,” she advised.

Hollub believes that technical proficiency has been, and will continue to be, the hallmark of successful oil and gas companies, but points out that from this point on, it needs to expand beyond the fundamentals of engineering and geoscience to include areas such as data analytics, climate science, and human capital management.

“I would advise any young person interested in becoming a petroleum engineer to make sure they take courses that will help them maneuver through and maximize value from the Internet of Things,” she said.

She also believes that, to bring more women into petroleum engineering, the industry needs to get to young girls as early as elementary school.

“Their paradigms are being shaped very early in life,” she said.


 Diana Hoff, Antero Resources

Diana Hoff, vice president of operations for Antero Resources, says petroleum engineering has been a lifelong connection to her “pumper Grandpa” and a life’s work with meaning.

Hoff began her career as a production engineer for Chevron in the US Gulf of Mexico, often supervising jobs such as wireline interventions and stimulations herself on site. Starting in production gave her the opportunity to interact with diverse groups across reservoir engineering, geoscience, drilling and completions, and joint ventures, and built a solid foundation in understanding the interactions among these groups and the needs of each to be effective.

She then asked to work as a drilling foreman and became the sole site supervisor of offshore workover rigs in the gulf and drilling rigs across many western US onshore basins.

“Becoming a drilling foreman was a big highlight,” Hoff recalled. “I went offshore at the age of 27 and worked 7-on-7-off or 14 and 14 hitches for 4 years. So much of drilling is experiential, and to go out at a young age and show I could learn quickly and lead 40 to 70 guys gave me ‘street cred’ among my peers. It was hard, and it was so critical to do.”

In 2010, she moved to Australia to lead the global drilling and completions operations for Santos, where she led the transition from conventional to unconventional operations. The first significant multiwell pad development in Australia was delivered under her leadership at 30% less cost than vertical wells. Her team also completed the first commercial shale well in Australia. And, she led the company’s corporate HSE functions, which spanned multiple states, and federal and international regimes.

Hoff has served as vice president of operations for Antero Resources since June 2017.

“Coming full circle back to West Virginia and having an impact on how resources are being developed in my home state has been very gratifying,” said Hoff. “This is such an incredibly important opportunity for Appalachia to have sustained jobs at home for the next generation and to make sure it’s done in a way that minimizes impacts.

“The people in this industry are salt of the Earth, and I love being around them,” she continued. “It’s such a team environment, particularly in drilling and completions. I’ve let my career be guided by just a few requirements. Am I having fun? Am I making a difference? Am I learning and being challenged? Holding true to these has led me to some unexpected places.

“In the late 1990s we were told there was no future for us because the US would run out of oil and gas and it would be importing both,” she remembered. “The transformation to US energy independence and low prices for consumers here gives me so much pride in our collective accomplishments. To have done what we were told was impossible and changed world economies and balances of power is very gratifying.”


 Karen Olson, Southwestern Energy

Karen Olson, technology director for Southwestern Energy, is recognized for leading industry efforts to manage water use and become better stewards of fresh water. Her SPE Distinguished Lecture, “Freshwater Neutral: Managing Water Use and Giving Back to the Environment,” is based on her leading role in Southwestern Energy’s ECH2O—Energy Conserving Water—initiative to replenish or offset each gallon of fresh water used in hydraulic fracturing operations through conservation practices, projects, and technologies.

The initiative, the first by any oil and gas company, was launched in late 2012 and had achieved freshwater neutrality for each operational basin by the end of 2016. By the end of 2018, the company had completed nine aquatic conservation projects in three states in concert with multiple and varied stakeholders. All told, the sum of the conservation projects currently provides a freshwater benefit of more than 71 million bbl/year to the local environments.”

“We got the idea from Coca Cola, which had done something similar, and began by defining the meaning and setting standards,” said Olson. “The initiative also included chemical safety and wellbore integrity. And, we allowed universities to research groundwater while we were fracturing and to publish their findings without our review.”

Yale University published a report of its findings, concluding that the environmental impact of the company’s hydraulic fracturing operations was minimal. But the research also revealed something else. There was pre-existing methane in water wells drilled in area valleys prior to any oil and gas development, while water wells in the hills contained no methane.

“So the methane in that valley water was from the Pennsylvania geology,” Olson said.

For Olson, leading the charge on freshwater neutrality was a logical extension of her extensive, career-long work in design, modeling, and operational execution of hydraulic fracturing. It was also an opportunity to apply the approach she believes has been a key enabler of her accomplishments.

“Every project, every accomplishment, follows a pattern,” Olson said. “I set goals and I try to assemble a solid team. Then I plant those goals as a vision for the team and throughout the company. I try always to think outside the box, to ask what’s happening, and why. I really try to focus on understanding the why,” she said.

Understanding the why always involves data gathering or lab testing, then validating the findings, and tying the results back to the field—an approach she learned from her master’s degree professors at Texas A&M and from her mentors, and applied as a completions engineer and stimulation team leader for BP to maximize production and recovery for the Valhall flank development in the North Sea. Based on numerical modeling and lab testing, her team completed some of the largest commercial-rate wells in the Valhall field, which had been producing since 1982.

After joining Southwestern Energy in 2010, Olson and her team applied the technical fundamentals of data gathering and diagnostics, using large blocks of outcrop rock analogous to different horizons in the Fayetteville shale, to advance understanding of fracture complexity. Their work led to understanding that fracture complexity is in the rock and can be enhanced with fluids and other techniques, but not created with them.

She is also proud that she has two daughters, both engineers, working in the oil industry as field frac engineers.


 Soma Chakraborty, Baker Hughes

Soma Chakraborty is engineering technical leader for Baker Hughes, a GE company, an expert in nanotechnology, and a pioneer in its application in oilfield operations. Chakraborty, who holds a PhD in chemistry from the India Institute of Technology in Mumbai and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in nanotechnology at Rice University, joined Baker Hughes in 2008.

She and her team developed a nanotechnology strategy, defined a technology roadmap for nanocarbon research in Baker Hughes, and helped develop a strong intellectual property position. A key project incorporated nanodiamond into PDC drill bits to increase durability, especially at high-pressure/high-temperature conditions, and delivered significant performance benefits over general purpose unleached cutters.

Asked whether she thought being a female team leader contributed to the success of the bit development, Chakraborty replied, “Absolutely, yes.”

“The project required thinking outside the box and meticulous attention to detail. And, being a member of the completions organization on a drill bit project, required strong engagement skills and the flexibility to collaborate across disciplines in a company that historically had been very siloed.”

She also credits an internal ­LinkedIn-type network and the technical forums that were popular in her company at the time as enabling the technology breakthrough.

“A colleague in our drill bits group had seen my name on our internal network and approached me to talk about nanodiamond research I had conducted at Rice,” she said. “That conversation led to my being part of a technological breakthrough and an invitation to present our work to our board of directors.”

Chakraborty’s contribution to the breakthrough bit technology also led to her becoming one of five people selected to participate in an accelerated technology leadership program, during which she helped prove the feasibility of forecast models to integrate with software algorithms, develop product hierarchy for multiple product lines, and facilitate change management and sales and operations planning for integrated business management within the company. Her team also analyzed nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as a reservoir logging tool and drafted a white paper providing opportunity mapping for the development of NMR for unconventional reservoirs.

Chakraborty’s most recent project has been as technical lead for the development of a new asset integrity management technology that could provide a breakthrough in sour operations management. Using molecular science to understand chemistry synergies, her team developed a chemistry for mitigating H2S that eliminates several ancillary effects commonly associated with H2S scavengers. The technology is designed to enable a new approach for H2S mitigation across upstream, midstream, and downstream applications.

Words of Wisdom For—and From—Women in Petroleum Engineering

Vicki Hollub, Karen Olson, Diana Hoff, and Soma Chakraborty were asked what advice they would give other women petroleum engineers.

  • Communicate directly, more like a man (but respect the culture where you are working).
  • Engage in discussion.
  • Learn to talk about diverse topics, not just what interests you.
  • Learn to say, “No.”
  • Take risks.
  • Communicate early and often, especially when you have made a mistake.
  • Use and appreciate humor.
  • Raise your hand if you must to be recognized and break through the noise.
  • Reach out; don’t wait for things or people to come to you.
  • Stand up for yourself in a professional way.
  • Understand and leverage the power of collaboration.
  • Take courses beyond the basics of engineering and geoscience.
  • Seek out and learn from male and female mentors and role models.
  • Use your “soft” skills to strengthen your company’s interaction with people in the communities where you live and work.

The X-Factor in PE: Women in the Industry

Judy Feder, JPT Technology Editor

01 March 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 3

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