Hollywood often portrays the company agents who acquire mineral rights as shady characters bent on cheating landowners out of fair compensation.
Recent Montana Tech graduates Frank Ravarino, 22, and Rial Gunlikson, 22, are aware of this negative stereotype as each of the former football players tackles the prospect of a career as a petroleum landman.
Yet both said the coursework in business ethics and natural resource law at Montana Tech that prepared them for this specialized work, along with the modern legal and ethical frameworks guiding such acquisitions, lead them to believe the dastardly image is an anachronism.
“Nowadays, it would be really difficult to take advantage of a landowner,” Gunlikson said.
Petroleum landmen acquire or lease mineral rights from landowners to allow oil and gas exploration and production.
One description of the job proclaims, “Workdays are never dull.”
Gunlikson was an intern last summer in his chosen field. He watched one day as a mentor handled an initially tense exchange with a property owner and her allies. The oil and gas company wanted to site a drill pad on the woman’s land.
“We thought we were just going to meet with the landowner,” Gunlikson said. “We pulled up and there were six people there.”
One was a tenant farmer opposed to the drill pad and associated infrastructure because of potential impacts to the agriculture that sustained him. Gunlikson said the landowner seemed swayed by the farmer’s concerns. Ultimately, though, negotiations yielded an agreement, he said.
“It totally worked out,” he said.
Ravarino, from Sandy, Utah, and Gunlikson, from Kalispell, are the first graduates from Montana Tech whose studies concentrated on a comparatively new option — Management of Natural Resources — among degree programs offered by the Department of Business and Information Technology.
Among other things, the option, first offered during the 2016-17 academic year, prepares students for a career as petroleum landmen.
Both Ravarino and Gunlikson started their education at Montana Tech in 2013, before creation of the academic specialty they later embraced.
One of Ravarino’s closest childhood friends, Dalton Smith, was a grandson of a man in eastern Utah who had negotiated numerous oil and gas leases for his sprawling land holdings.
“I’ve been around the oil fields all my life,” Ravarino said.
Although Gunlikson did not have similar experiences, he has an uncle in Colorado involved in the oil and gas business.
When the two young men started at Montana Tech, neither anticipated working in the industry.
Yet when the Management of Natural Resources option surfaced, with its potential to yield a job as a petroleum landman, Ravarino and Gunlikson jumped at the chance to sign up. The new curriculum that had emerged combined coursework in business and petroleum engineering, with an emphasis also on relevant courses in natural resource law and accounting.
Tim Kober, a longtime professor of business at Montana Tech and head of the Department of Business and Information Technology, said former student Whitney Lott had taken a job as a petroleum landman and that discussions Montana Tech had with her provided a key impetus for designing the new program.
Lott said some of the earliest discussions were with Provost Doug Abbott.
Montana Tech recognized also, Kober said, that demand for petroleum landmen, as well as petroleum engineers, was increasing as the oil and gas industry in the U.S. experienced a boom in production, growth tied in large part to advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Lott, now 28, works as a petroleum landman for SM Energy, based in Denver. She graduated from Montana Tech in May 2011 with a business degree.
Lott, who grew up in Twin Bridges, said recently that conversations with friends at Montana Tech majoring in petroleum engineering and with people she knew who had grown up in and around the Bakken oil fields had piqued her interest in working in the oil and gas industry.
“I did some research to try and figure out what I could do to fit into the industry,” Lott said, and ended up landing a petroleum landman job with SM Energy in July 2012, working first in Billings before moving to the Denver office in 2016.
“After I started working, I noticed there were some real parallels between my job and the resources Montana Tech has,” she said, which led her to suggest consideration of a related program by her alma mater.
Lott said she likes her job very much.
Kober and business faculty colleague David Ottolino relied in part on resources of the American Association of Professional Landmen to design the curriculum and tried to incorporate already offered courses whenever possible.
“We were able to use a number of existing courses in petroleum and mining that allowed us to only require the development of three new courses,” Kober said.
The AAPL, based in Fort Worth, Texas, says it has more than 15,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. Lott is one of them.
There are a dozen AAPL accredited undergraduate energy management and petroleum land management programs at colleges or universities in the U.S. and Canada.
Kober said Montana Tech intends to eventually pursue AAPL accreditation.
Christopher Halaszynski, AAPL’s director of education and member services, was asked about the occupational outlook for petroleum landmen.
“Promising in the years to come, with all the technological advances and efficiencies brought about in recent years,” he replied. “However, this energy sector, and more specifically the oil and gas industry, is cyclical like any other industry.”
Meanwhile, both Gunlikson and Ravarino said they were pleased to exit college with promising employment prospects. They said their families are happy about that too. In fact, Gunlikson already has a job lined up.
His first day with Extraction Oil and Gas in Denver will be Jan. 8.
Ravarino, who has been in discussion with a company about a job, said he believes he is prepared to deal with the sometimes thorny negotiations with landowners over mineral rights.
“I think that, with me, dealing with people is a strength,” he said. “I’m a people person. I get along with most everyone.”