Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2008
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Masters' Week: Mech Grad, Oil Industry CEO Offers View from a Mountaintop

Joe Bryant wanted mountains; instead he got the world. He grew up in Lincoln, one of six children: five of whom became engineers. (When the Bryant siblings considered careers, the only question in their father's mind was, "Civil or mechanical?" )

Bryant worked as a brakeman for BNSF during college and seeing all those coal trains likely primed him for a career in energy. After graduating from UNL in 1977 with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering, he worked for Amoco in Wyoming. With several good discoveries during his watch, Bryant moved up

Joe Bryant, founder and CEO of Cobalt International Energy
Joe Bryant (left), founder and CEO of Cobalt International Energy, returned to the College of Engineering for UNL Masters' Week in November 2008. Bryant earned his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1977. In classes and lab tours, he met with faculty and students, including graduate student Nate Wood in the robotics lab.

the corporate ladder to Denver and then higher positions overseas, which prepared him to become president of Amoco. The oil company merged with Unocal, and he led the organization during negotiations when China wanted to buy the company as its national oil operation.

In 2005, Bryant started Cobalt International Energy, a smaller but more nimble company that focuses on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and West Africa, as well as acquiring liquid natural gas and transporting these products.

During the November 2008 UNL Masters' Week, Bryant's inner mechanical engineer shone through as he told an ME 370 (Manufacturing Methods and Processes) class about how the oil industry's huge supertankers were built in the world's largest dry dock at Ulsan, South Korea. He discussed geologic factors with the ME 420 (Heat Transfer) class. And in an afternoon Q&A session with ME students, faculty and staff, Bryant shared a wealth of industry experience and insight.

  • On engineering: "Engineering is the most powerful degree. You get the basic tools to do anything." But engineers cannot be passive with their capabilities. "Your children are going to live in the world you leave them."

  • On the oil industry: time is money-with tanker and refinery operating costs, a lost day wastes millions of dollars-but human life trumps all. When Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf of Mexico this year, Cobalt safely evacuated its rigs and hoped for the best with its equipment--some of it reaching more than 25,000 feet down through the ocean. Despite the strength of the rig's anchoring system, built to bear 80-foot seas with 12 steel ropes that are each three to five inches thick, one rig was blown 60 miles from its original location.

  • On the future of energy and the economy: "The U.S. can be energy independent, but not oil independent ... we import more than half of our oil and there's nothing on the horizon to really stop that trend."Consider that when you fill the 20-gallon tank of your car, only eight of those gallons come from U.S. resources; to combat dependence, you must either stop using the other 12 gallons or find ways to make the eight more efficient.

Bryant expressed few regrets-mainly, not going for an MBA degree-but he hasn't missed much. He believes, "It's not about the degree but how you expose yourself to the opportunities in front of you." And he understands the bigger picture: "Early education is fundamental to engineering which, with technology, fuels industrial development-essential to economic growth. Together they are the early indicators for any nation's future economic prosperity."