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University of Calgary looks to relaunch oil engineering program after hiatus

The University of Calgary entrance sign and arch are shown in a stock photo. (Getty Images) The University of Calgary entrance sign and arch are shown in a stock photo. (Getty Images)
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After a three-year hiatus, the University of Calgary is bringing back its suspended oil and gas engineering program to help address the hiring challenges being faced by Canadian energy companies.

The university stopped admitting students to its petroleum engineering bachelor's degree program in 2021 after a multi-year period of low oil prices, corporate consolidation and widespread energy sector layoffs.

The decision made headlines at the time, in part due to the perceived symbolism of the move. The University of Calgary is located in Alberta's largest city, which is home to the head offices of Canada's largest oil and gas companies. 

University administrators said at the time that student demand for the program had plummeted — not just because of the ongoing industry downturn, but also due to increased public discourse about climate change and the energy transition.

But in an interview Friday, Anders Nygren — vice-dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary — said the program will be on offer again for students beginning their post-secondary studies this fall.

"Some of our industry contacts and industry partners have been telling us increasingly over the recent months and years that they are having trouble finding qualified engineers to hire into the energy industry," Nygren said.

"We're hearing more and more that there's a demand on their side for graduates of programs such as the oil and gas engineering program."

He added the university is also hearing anecdotally from students interested in courses in oil and gas engineering, though he said he does not know what kind of enrolment numbers that may translate to.

Historically, many graduates of the U of C's oil and gas engineering program have gone on to get jobs in the downtown Calgary office towers that serve as the corporate hub for Alberta's energy sector.

But at the time of the petroleum engineering program's suspension, Alberta's unemployment rate was among the highest in the country (averaging 8.7 per cent for the year). Energy companies were reeling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a years-long oil-and-gas sector downturn.

Since then, however, oil prices have rebounded. Oil and gas remains Alberta's No. 1 industry, and Canadian oil companies have been generating strong and at times record-breaking profits over the past two years.

The province has also benefited from an influx of international and interprovincial migrants seeking affordable homes and economic opportunity. 

In addition, the war in Ukraine has put the issue of energy security in the spotlight, and global demand for fossil fuels continues to rise.

Tristan Goodman, president of the oil and gas industry group the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, said energy companies were "very disappointed" by the university's 2021 decision to halt the oil-and-gas degree program.

"It just didn't make any sense, actually," Goodman said.

"Yes, this industry goes up and down like any commodity-based sector ... but I think it was just not a great move on the part of the university and I'm pleased to see they're rectifying the problem."

Goodman said oil and gas careers are well-paid, interesting and technologically forward-thinking. He said the decline in interest from young people in oil and gas careers that the U of C encountered may have been driven partly by what he calls a "bad narrative" that he believes is starting to change.

"Of course, we need to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time, this is a product that everybody in the world is using. And I think a bit more pragmatism around that is entering the system now," he added.

"In general, this is a fantastic industry to be in and it has very, very long prospects."

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, acknowledged that there are still jobs to be had in oil and gas and that will be the case "for decades." 

But he said young people interested in careers in energy need to be prepared to pivot and adapt their careers in the years to come.

"Oil and gas is a sunset industry, but as we phase out oil and gas and start safely shutting down and remediating those sites, there's going to be lots of work to do. And a lot of the skills that you're going to get are transferable to renewables too, for things like geothermal," Stewart said.

"So I would tell young people to look for those types of knowledge and skills that you're going to be able to pivot to other forms of energy. Don't put all your eggs in that oil and gas basket."

Nygren said even though the oil and gas engineering degree program has been on hiatus, it doesn't mean students at the University of Calgary have not had paths available to them to pursue careers in the industry.

He said there are about 1,800 students currently enrolled at the university in programs relevant to the oil and gas industry, including petroleum-specific specializations within the fields of mechanical and chemical engineering.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

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