Posted on 17 January 2009

Otto Santos, Petrobras University – Training a new generation for a new Petrobras

Salvador – it’s Brazil’s oldest city (founded in 1549), one of its largest (3 million-plus people in the metropolitan area), and a vibrant place known as the country’s “Capital da Alegria,” or “Capital of Happiness.”

It’s also a city that Dr Otto Santos of Petrobras is passionate about: He was born and raised there, and, other than brief stints in the United States to complete post-graduate studies and training, “I’ve never left,” he said.

Dr Santos is also passionate about drilling – and teaching others about drilling. So when he graduated from Petrobras University himself in 1977, staying on at the Salvador campus as an instructor seemed like a perfect career choice. In the following three decades, as a Petrobras University professor, Dr Santos has not only trained fresh graduates into working petroleum engineers, he’s also kept existing engineers up-to-date with an extensive curriculum of continuing education courses.

The industry is facing a huge personnel challenge, he emphasized, and we must tackle that through vigorous training. “We have to recruit, train and retain a lot of people – a whole new generation. In my opinion, we are very good in terms of technology, and we have a lot of new equipment and new rigs. But we don’t have experienced people.”

Over the past seven years, Petrobras University has trained more than 1,000 new petroleum engineers, averaging about 150 a year, he said. “Right now we have 200 new engineers studying there. We take these college graduate engineers – such as civil engineers or mechanical engineers – and put them through a year of intensive training so they can become petroleum engineers.”

Those numbers apply to only petroleum engineers, by the way. If you count students from other engineering disciplines and from geology and geophysics, the current student population comes to about 1,500 people, he estimated. “We have a huge program here.”

Well control

Aside from teaching and training our current and future workforce, Dr Santos has also done extensive research throughout his career, directing at least six thesis and authoring more than 30 industry articles (and co-authoring 20-plus more).

One of his favorite topics: well control. He firmly believes that it plays a critical role in drilling and safety and is something that everyone must understand. Under his coordination, in July 1996 Petrobras became the first operator to achieve IADC’s WellCAP accreditation. “In my opinion, everybody in my company has to have a WellCAP certificate in order to go to the rig, especially the new people. It’s important to train the new generation in well control,” he emphasized.

The company’s focus on well control has certainly paid off: Since 1996, its cumulative blowout rate per 1,000 wells has dropped from nearly 3.25 to 0.5.

Petrobras growth

No matter how you look at it, Dr Santos has considerable tasks on his hands, considering Petrobras’ growth over the past decades and the growth it anticipates in the coming years. “When I joined Petrobras, its production was about 150,000 barrels a day. Now it’s more than 2 million barrels a day. Petrobras also has become a leader in terms of drilling and production in deepwater and ultra-deepwater,” he said.

Now, with the development of the substantial subsalt frontier, he continued, the company is facing new, maybe even tougher challenges. “We’ll be spending a lot of time and money to improve drilling through salt formations and the rate of penetration in the carbonate rocks underneath the salt.”

In terms of people and equipment as well, new challenges will drive further improvements for the company: “After subsalt, Petrobras will transform into a completely different company,” he said.

Personal challenges

Dr Santos is certainly doing his part to help the drilling industry face its upcoming challenges, whether in personnel training or technology research or well control safety. On a more personal side, he has a couple of challenges coming up as well. One, he said, is being selected as a 2009-2010 SPE Distinguished Lecturer. “My challenge is to go through this very important program. It’s an honor, and I will enjoy it.”

His second challenge is less immediate, nevertheless looming in the background: retirement, perhaps within the next couple of years, he says. “I have to see what I’m going to do after that.”

And in case you mistakenly think that Otto Santos might really leave behind the world of drilling for a life of leisure, he’s quick to clarify: “Of course I won’t stop what I do. I will keep on working.” He notes that he’s keeping his options open, even to proposals from abroad.

Looks like leaving Salvador may be an option, but leaving drilling is certainly not.

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