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The end of an era for geologists?

Geologists are a bedrock for the energy industry. However, the number of geology students are dwindling, as petroleum-focused courses are closing their doors under new pressures.

What is going on and how can new entrants be encouraged to consider life as a geologist, which will be crucial to meeting energy industry needs?

Long decline

Energy industry-focused courses, such as petroleum geology, have provided graduates with industry-applied skills for prospective careers. Now, though, the survival of these courses hangs in the balance. Geology departments are reportedly struggling to attract undergraduates.

According to the Geological Society, applications to geology programmes dropped by 11% in 2017-2018. They suffered a further 9% drop in 2018-2019. This trend seems to be continuing.

There may be a concern from younger generations around a future as a geologist, in oil and gas. This is not solely around climate change, but the competitive “boom and bust” nature of the industry. The industry has run through a number of aggressive redundancy processes in recent years, including oil price crash of 2015 and COVID-19.

Deep rooted

Problems start early for geology. Schools struggle with the courses. A level Geology existed on several exam boards in the 1980s, but this dwindled with the establishment of the National Curriculum by the 1990s. Figures now show an all-time low for A-level Geology entries. Only two exam boards offered it in 2018.

The Department of Education brought in the Progress 8 initiative in 2016. This aimed to give pupils a more well rounded education. However, it rendered geology “not a science”, making it of little importance in school league tables. There were similar problems in Scotland. The lack of geology-educated teachers worsened this state of affairs.

In both England and Scotland, the school curriculum had a strong influence on undergraduate geology numbers.

Around 44% of those who studied geology A-levels went on to do geoscience at university, from 2009 up to 2014. That is according to data from the Earth Science Teachers’ Association (ESTA), a charity working to promote geology to students.

Geologists in training in red hats at Imperial's geology MSci
Imperial’s geology MSci

Alan Richardson, who taught A-level geology for decades, has written that government’s education policies have been worsened this decline. Potential geologists have had to seek reassurance about future jobs, amid a general perception the study is associated with pollution.

If schools fail to make students aware of geologists’ importance, they may opt for environmental sciences instead.

With schools unable to meet this gap, universities must take up the challenge.

Part to play

Universities play an important part in attracting younger generations to consider becoming geologists, particularly those providing skills in the energy industry. However, institutions in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Derby have closed petroleum-focused courses. In Scotland, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have also seen the pinch.

Interest in petroleum-related courses at University of Aberdeen dropped by over one third during recent years. At the same time, applications in renewable energy have risen. Geology & Petroleum Geology is no longer on the prospectus, while BSc Geology survives.

Master’s degrees in Integrated Petroleum Geoscience are still on the agenda at University of Aberdeen. Imperial College London suspended its Petroleum Geoscience MSc in 2021 but does offer a four-year Geology MSci. A move to switch “geology” with “geoscience” is an attempt to make the subject appear more broad, but fails to get to the substantive issue.

Demise of geosciences

The University of Birmingham (UoB) no longer offers its Applied & Petroleum Micropalaeontology MSc.

This Master’s provided hands-on skills for biostratigraphic analysis of subsurface rock formations. It offered specialised biostratigraphy skills from companies such as CGG Robertson and Petrostat. It focused on analysing microscopic grains of fossils, in order to characterise reservoirs and date rock layers. This skill helped companies save both time and money by fine-tuning the direction of their drilling efforts.

I graduated from the course in 2015 – the same year as an oil price crash. As a result, there were no graduate opportunities for the field. My fellow students opted to move into environmental sciences, or take other lateral routes.

By the time that CGG biostratigrapher Imran Ali graduated from the same course in 2018, he watched a “fossil free” campaign unfold on campus. This aimed to do away with oil and gas-related courses, in step with similar movements in other UK universities.

“Student unions were wanting UoB to go fossil free and divest from all things related to the oil and gas industry,” Ali explained. “This, tied with the reduction of student intake for the course, eventually led to the closure of the course a few years later.”

Fear of bad publicity and a series of petitions influenced the decision. But the closure of the course is a cause of concern for the biostratigraphy field.

“I feel generally in the field of industry biostratigraphers there will be skills shortages, especially with no taught MSc courses in micropalaeontology in the UK,” Ali said.

“When those with a wealth of experience retire, there are not many people with a similar skillset that can fill the role.” The combination of COVID-19 and social pressure on the industry, “not many people had picked up biostratigraphy after my year. In the future, there will be another skills shortage if there continues to be a lack of micropalaeontology degree courses.”

This may create challenges in knowledge transfer to new starts, particularly as senior staff retire, he said.

The problem is not just for the development of oil and gas. Ali noted legacy data may need to be repurposed for carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, or for geothermal energy.

Wider society

Ali spoke about his experience as a geologist at the recent Business Exploration Opportunities Show (BEOS). He presented his thoughts on ways to overcome the challenges in fostering a positive geoscience community.

Ali is working on such a community plan by working with Geoscience Energy Society of Great Britain (GESGB) and American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). GESGB was, until March 2023, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain.

The aim is to create events to share knowledge and collaborate. They will “build a bridge between those with a wealth of experience all the way down to new career starters and students. Inspiring the next generation of geoscientist, showcasing what impact they can have in an evolving industry.”

“Individuals can help us spread the word and many attend our events, which we really appreciate. Energy companies have been willing to collaborate with us. It would be lovely to get more companies on board to help us challenge misconceptions and prevent future skills gaps.”

The British Geological Society breaking ground on a geothermal heat pump project at our Keyworth HQ, in a ceremony attended by Ruth Edwards MP.
The British Geological Society breaking ground on a geothermal heat pump project at its Keyworth HQ, in a ceremony attended by Ruth Edwards MP. March 2024.

Building bridges

There is scope for individuals to make their pitch to a wider audience on their own. The Geo Girl YouTube channel is one such link, bringing geology to the people. Dr Rachel Phillips, a postdoctoral researcher, who now researches geocommunication, started the channel.

“Based on the comments I receive on my channel, as well as preliminary results from my survey research into the perceptions of geology among the general public, it is clear that many people have the misperception that geology is only about rocks and/or oil and gas. And because of these views, many students view geology as offering limited career options,” Phillips told E-FWD.

There is evidence to suggest one pull factor for a degree is the appearance of altruism, such as benefiting the environment. Those polled have rated geoscience the lowest in terms of being able to help the environment and society. Phillips points out this may be down to a misunderstanding of what geologists really do.

“Most people do not see geology or geologists as being able to work in renewable energy, carbon sequestration, or any climate or environmental field in general. They don’t know that geology means the ‘study of Earth’, they think it means the study of rocks or oil/gas. In fact, many view geology and geologists as being ‘the problem’, that is, the cause of climate change and thus, do not see that it is also the solution,” she said.

There is a need to show the impact of geology to people, beyond the scientist community. Given the squeeze in the school curriculum, and disappearance of petroleum-tailored courses, younger generations may not be aware of what geology has to offer.

Future geologists

While petroleum-focused courses have been in decline, there are new courses springing up on the energy transition. The MSc Sustainable Geoscience course at University of Aberdeen, for instance, offers a way to see geology as an important part of the energy transition. There is a strong emphasis on CCS.

Oil and gas will not disappear in the near term and geologists will continue to be an important part of the transition.

There is a lack of awareness in the sector, compounded by concerns around limitations for graduates and frequent redundancies.

Would money from the oil and gas industry have an impact? Or would it be too much of a target for environmentalists and on-campus acrimony?

The government can have an impact on geology’s potential role in the curriculum. But this can only come about with a wider awareness of the sector’s importance.

Engagement with the broader public on how geology can solve problems in the energy transition may be a good solution. But if universities are serious about the country’s economy, about jobs and about meeting energy needs – they must step up and support these courses.

Updated April 24 to note that Imperial has suspended its Petroleum Geoscience and Petroleum Geoengineering courses.

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