Sean Avitt, GIT

Sean graduated from the Jackson School of Geosciences in May 2009 with a B.S. in General Geology. Sean is currently an Engineering Specialist at the Railroad Commission of Texas in Austin, where he has worked for the past two and a half years. He is also a Geoscientist-In-Training (GIT). Previously, Sean worked at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and ATC Associates, Inc., an environmental assessment/remediation company.

Describe the work you did at TCEQ and ATC Associates, Inc.

At TCEQ, I processed Air Emissions Inventories for Oil and Gas Exploration/Production companies operating in the Barnett Shale. The legislature required TCEQ to get an estimate of the influence from Barnett Shale activities on air quality in the DFW area. I was contracted to assist in processing and providing quality assurance for the emissions inventories.

ATC’s work was similar to a lot of assessment/remediation companies. I mostly performed or assisted with Environmental Assessment Phase Is and Phase IIs, Leaking Petroleum Storage Tank (LPST) projects at gas stations, and a few fertilizer storage facilities which are subject to Texas Risk Reduction Program (TRRP) rules. At ATC, I learned the common skills of environmental geology like soil and groundwater sampling procedure and analysis, soil boring logging, monitor well construction, and different kinds of environmental drilling techniques.

Describe your current job at the Railroad Commission of Texas.

I am a technical reviewer and permit writer for Environmental Permits & Support at the Railroad Commission of Texas, which is the oil and gas regulator in the state. The permits we issue authorize disposal and recycling of oil and gas waste. Oil and gas waste, like any other waste produced in the state, needs appropriate disposal. Some waste types can be discharged with certain limitations and some wastes are sent to a landfill.

When industry submits applications for permits to dispose of waste or construct commercial disposal facilities, the application is reviewed for completeness and a determination is made as to whether or not the application could allow pollution to surface or subsurface waters. If the application is determined to be acceptable and no protests are filed by the public, the permit is written and issued. My job in particular keeps me engaged, because we review applications for all different kinds of permits with many different applicable rules and regulations.

What does a typical day look like at your job?

My typical day starts with email. Communication with industry applicants, the public and with other employees is very important. Industry needs to know what information we need to process their applications and be notified of any deficiency in their applications. The public needs access to information regarding how groundwater is being protected in the state. Also, my fellow employees and I need to communicate to ensure that we’re all providing consistent and accurate information.

Ultimately, the majority of my day is spent reading applications and writing permits or letters to applicants. Applications might be as simple as ten pages that include location, details on the type of disposal, and the volume of waste to be disposed of, or the project may include many applications and be upwards of 300 pages. The larger projects are typically commercial disposal facilities (like landfills, but for oil and gas waste) or recycling facilities that include detailed engineering information and site-specific hydrogeologic information taken from soil borings. Our unit is also charged with ensuring compliance, so when enforcement actions are necessary I coordinate with field inspectors, other staff, and our enforcement attorneys.

By the end of the day, I have usually found some policy or regulation that I need clarification on. Depending on the topic, I may spend a few minutes or several hours researching applicable regulations online or reviewing internal documents.

Meeting with industry applicants to discuss new applications is very common. These meetings can be interesting because the requirements or desires of applicants can differ. Being able to identify and communicate potential permitting complications is key.

I have been privileged with two extracurricular tasks. I present new regulations regarding recycling of oil and gas waste at conferences, and I update our unit’s part of the Commission website.  Updating and tinkering with presentations and webpages is a never ending task.

What traits, skills and experiences are important in your job?

Technical writing and critical reading are very important skills for my job. Technical writing is important because a large part of my job is writing permits and letters, and critical reading is important because I need to read, interpret and apply technical and legal documents.

Because the rules require that we make a determination of whether or not a permit will allow pollution of surface or subsurface water, it’s important that employees be familiar with geohydrology, engineering techniques, and risk assessment.

What was your job search like?

My previous jobs were found through hunting job-postings on government websites, familiarizing myself with job-search engines and applicable companies in my area. If JSG alumni treat their job searches like it’s their current occupation (i.e. eight hours a day), then regardless of methodology they’ll have a job in no time.

My current job was communicated to me by a friend. It’s really helpful to stay in touch with your “geo-buddies.” All your fellow alumni are going through similar experiences, but your collective experience is greater than the sum of the parts.

Are there any important certifications or licensures that are important in your field?

I’m a Geoscientist-In-Training (GIT). The test to become a GIT can be taken right out of school. It’s recommended that you take it while your education knowledge is still fresh. Being on track to get your Professional Geoscientist licensure (PG) is definitely looked upon favorably. You must be a PG to work in the Groundwater Advisory Unit, which is the unit that determines the appropriate depth for surface casing on oil and gas wells to protect usable-quality groundwater.

Any other advice for students at the Jackson School?

Apply for anything. Interview for anything. Take any job. The worst that could happen is you’ll be right back where you started, but with more knowledge and experience.

If you love Austin, then you should really take a look at working in state government. There are many agencies that need geologists: Railroad Commission of Texas, General Land Office, Texas Water Development Board, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Don’t expect to get paid the big bucks but there are great benefits, including loan forgiveness!