When Montana Tech graduated its first petroleum engineers back in 1949, there were eight of them. This year's class will include 65.
Sen. Steve Daines, who was on the university's campus Friday to help celebrate 70 years of Tech petroleum graduates, celebrated the growth in the program over that time -- but also made a pitch for more of it.
"We need more graduates in engineering," Daines said to an audience of students, faculty, alumni, and industry insiders gathered for the 24th annual spring symposium hosted by Montana Tech Petroleum Department and the student chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
That need, he argued, has been crucial to the United States' current "incredible prosperity" and will be key to its future growth.
Citing America's stark move from "energy dependence" in the 1970s to its current "energy abundance," Daines said, "That is not by accident. That's because of what we're doing right here at Montana Tech."
What Tech's petroleum engineering department is doing, Daines said, is producing graduates who are "immediately employed" in "good high-paying jobs" and who contribute to an industry that has played a key role in driving the American economy and national security.
Tech's petroleum engineering program has grown since it started, but fluctuations in the program's enrollment have been identified as a factor in the school's broader declines in enrollment in recent years. According to a university release from October 2018, the program had declined by about 200 degree-seeking students in recent years. That decline has been blamed on fluctuations in the oil industry.
While Daines acknowledged the "boom and bust" nature of the industry during an interview with The Montana Standard, he also said he remains "very bullish" about its future, noting that the world's population is expected to grow by 1.5 to 2 billion people and energy demand is expected to grow 30 percent.
"God bless those who are out there exploring for energy and natural gas," Daines told the symposium audience, before bringing up Rick Muncrief, Chairman and CEO of WPX Energy, to speak.
Muncrief shared lessons learned from his long career in the industry and from his recent focus on the Bakken and Permian Basin oil fields.
Noting the growth in domestic oil production that has resulted from new technologies, Muncrief said he looked forward to what the future would hold for the industry.
"I can't wait to see what your generation will do," Muncrief said.
Muncrief noted that a big slice of the next generation of petroleum engineers will come from Tech and that he had "hired a lot" of the university's graduates over the years.
"This is a special place," Muncrief said. "So just keep up the good work."