How did a farm boy from Kewanee, Mississippi, a Lauderdale County town near the Alabama border with a population of approximately 12 to 15, grow up to be president of the largest, most prestigious organization in the world for petroleum engineers?
William “Bill” M. Cobb, who received his B.S. and M.S. in petroleum engineering from Mississippi State University (MSU), just finished a one-year term as president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), a professional organization with 80,000 members across the world. Even before taking the helm at SPE, Cobb had traveled to more than 40 countries around the world in his work as a consultant, teacher and legal arbitrator.
“It’s been a great ride, a lot of fun,” said Cobb, who celebrated recently the 25th anniversary of his oil consulting business, William M. Cobb & Associates, Dallas, Texas. “I think I could go to any major city in world today from Moscow to Beijing, from Buenos Aires to Anchorage, and from Perth, Australia to Dubai, and know somebody. If I wanted to borrow $25, they would come down and loan it to me. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to travel and see different parts of the world, develop new friendships and to better understand different cultures, languages and customs.”
He has found it particularly interesting to see how the oil wealth has transformed remote, undeveloped areas of the Middle East into desert paradises. Because of the oil wealth that has flowed in recent decades, places such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are more modern than Dallas.
Petroleum engineers keep the oil-based economy going by designing and supervising the process of recovering oil and natural gas from underground. The importance of the job has become even more pronounced in the past several years as world demand for hydrocarbons increased. Further, as costs of exploring for and producing oil and natural gas from non-traditional places such as in very deep water exceeding 3,000 to 5,000 feet or hostile or environmentally sensitive areas skyrocketed, the demand for new technology and experienced technical personnel has increased exponentially.
Cobb isn’t sure how he ended up in petroleum engineering, and he doesn’t recall in all the time he was growing up ever even seeing an oil derrick. But he is sure why he ended up a Mississippi State.
“I always knew I was going to Mississippi State,” Cobb said. “I was a Bulldog from the day I was born. My dad went to MSU. He was an agriculture teacher. When I came off the farm in Kewanee, there was only one school for me, and that was MSU. It was there for me and over the years as a student and then as a faculty member, I developed relationships and friendships that continue to today.”
At first he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study. But he did know for certain he didn’t want a career in agriculture.
“We had a small farm, and I did the chores that kids in the early to mid-50s did, long before there were big corn pickers and cotton pickers with air conditioning, cell phones and CDs,” he said. “You did most of it by hand.”
Cobb did well in engineering school at State, finding petroleum engineering particularly fascinating. After getting first a B.S. and then a M.S. in petroleum engineering, he was offered a full scholarship to get a Ph.D. at prestigious Stanford University. Still not long off the farm, landing at Stanford in 1967 — the summer of free love when the hippie generation got going really big in the San Francisco area — was a huge culture shock. But he considers it all a great experience.
When he achieved his Ph.D. in 1970, there was a downturn in oil industry, and he may have been the only person in his graduating class to get a job in his field right after graduation. He went to work for Atlantic Richfield in Dallas. That was followed by a return to his alma mater where he taught petroleum engineering for three years before leaving to rejoin Atlantic Richfield in Dallas. Later, he worked as vice president and manager of engineering for Cornell Oil Co. — a small independent company later bought out by Exxon — from 1979–83. In 1983, he convinced his wife of 36 years, Carolyn, an Oklahoma University graduate, to work as his secretary when he opened his own consulting business. The company now has approximately 20 professionals and technical associates.
Over the past 25 years, his consulting business included not just providing expert advice to oil companies, but also teaching industry short courses. It was the teaching primarily that carried him to more than 40 countries.
“I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to six continents, but am doubtful that I will make it to seventh, Antarctica,” said Cobb, who estimates he has been away from home on travel approximately 200 days so far this year. “But, who knows? Someone may find oil there someday.”
Cobb first got involved in SPE as a student at MSU, when professors encouraged student participation in the organization. As he moved through his professional career, he stayed active with SPE, which is a key resource for technical information related to oil and gas exploration and production. Cobb wrote technical papers and has made more than 50 technical presentations to SPE sections throughout the world. After being asked to serve on the board of directors, he was later selected to serve first as president-elect, then as president.
Oil industry technology has improved tremendously over the years, but the problem is that the industry doesn’t have enough trained professionals.
“And major oil companies aren’t going to turn over a $500-million project to someone just two years out of school,” Cobb said. “Today, the oil and gas industry is and will continue to provide many challenging opportunities for college and bright high school students who choose to study engineering, geology or related sciences in college. The oil and gas industry hires many engineering disciplines such as mechanical, chemical and electrical engineers. The SPE has been loosely defined by some as the Society of Professionals in Energy.”
Historically, the oil and gas industry has been cyclical, and a number of petroleum engineering departments — including the one at MSU — closed during a down cycle. That has resulted in not enough capacity in the petroleum engineering programs left in the U.S.
While there have been some predictions that most of the oil in the world will be gone in another 40 years, Cobb doesn’t see this as a dead end or “sunset” industry.
“Our best days are still in front of us,” Cobb said. “We have enough oil to last 100 years, but it is much more difficult to recover today than it was 20 and 30 years ago. In a typical oil field today, if we are lucky and things go well, we recover 30% to 40% of the oil and leave behind as much as 60%. Of all of the oil discovered to date, more than half is still there. We just have to figure out how to get it out. No other industry uses more advanced technology today than the petroleum industry.”
Still, he admits there is a major uphill challenge. The U.S. uses approximately 21 million barrels of crude oil each day (one barrel contains 42 gallons), but only produces approximately seven million barrels per day. The remaining 14 million is imported from other countries — some that are not friendly to our country. Currently, the world only produces a little more than 80 million barrels per day. As a result, approximately 25% of world’s daily oil production is consumed here in the U.S. and yet the U.S. contains less than 5% of the world’s population.
Talking while watching bumper-to-bumper traffic from his office in Dallas, Cobb said he realizes things have changed a little in the past year-and-a-half with oil prices more than $100 a barrel. One can hardly give away SUVs, for example. But Cobb still sees most people driving a lot larger cars than is common in most foreign countries he has visited where gas consumption is lower.
“We as Americans are simply going to have to utilize oil- and natural gas-derived fuels more efficiently than we have in the past when gasoline was cheap,” Cobb said. “You are seeing a shift already in the past six to nine months because of the high price of gasoline. You see people driving fewer miles, and more carpooling. There is a definite increase in people taking mass transit.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.