Canada’s oil and gas industry is not a monolith.
Though many workers in the industry support the use of fossil fuels, plenty are also pushing for a fair transition to renewable energy.
A survey released in July by the oilpatch worker-led group Iron & Earth found 90 per cent of fossil fuel industry employees thought they could transition into at least one type of net-zero career with a year or less of training. The poll, done in partnership with Abacus Data, surveyed 300 workers across Canada.
Iron & Earth connected Canada’s National Observer with three workers to tell their stories. Here’s how they got into fossil fuels, why they want a transition, and what they wish the rest of Canada understood.
When Jim McPhail first started working in the oilpatch in the late 1980s, the industry was high-flying. Trained in organizational consulting, he walked into what was then known as the TransCanada Tower in downtown Calgary in search of a job in his chosen field.
The opportunity vaulted him to a decades-long career mostly spent in oil and gas. Future gigs took him to Tulsa, Okla., and on trips to oilsands work camps in Fort McMurray, Alta.
As a high-schooler, McPhail had been excited about environmental issues. And as a parent, he raised his kids to care about the natural world. But when it came to fossil fuels, he said, there was a disconnect.
“I hadn't made a link,” he said.
“I had basically made a deal with myself saying, ‘If I get laid off from this job, I'm never working in oil and gas again,’” said Delia Warren. Meet the fossil fuel workers who want an energy transition.
Over time, he started to connect the dots. Watching co-workers and friends devastated by the boom and bust cycle of the oilpatch made him wonder whether the industry would work for him long term. Something clicked in 2010.
“I can’t explain this to my kids,” he said, recalling his thinking at the time. “How come I've been letting this go or not paying attention?”
So McPhail started networking and volunteering with environmental groups. And when he speaks to people he knows from the industry, he does his best to talk to them about what he’s learned. Can you believe how hot it’s been lately? Have you noticed some plants we used to grow in our gardens can’t survive here anymore? How do you feel about what’s happening in the oilpatch?
As McPhail spoke with the Observer, the Calgary sky was tinged grey with wildfire smoke.
“It’s not an argument, find out where they’re coming from,” he said. “What do you need? What do you believe?”
Delia Warren worked to break into the offshore wind industry for a decade.
Born and raised in St. John’s, N.L., she had a keen interest in renewable energy.
“It’s really extremely windy in Newfoundland,” she said. “When I determined that, you know, you could make energy from the wind … I was just fascinated.”
Warren studied mechanical engineering at Memorial University, where her program involved work placements. Most of them were in oil and gas, a major industry in the region.
“They paid the best, and I was trying to keep my student debt low,” Warren said.
She graduated in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession.
“I figured (if) I got a job offer, I’ve got to take it. So I spent the next seven years working as a pipeline engineer, structural engineer for the offshore oil industry,” she said.
“I got some really great experience and learned a lot and worked with some fantastic people and travelled and all that stuff, but I was never true to myself. When people would ask what I did, I felt like I had to justify it.”
In 2016, amid low oil prices, the company Warren worked at was making round after round of cuts. “I had basically made a deal with myself saying, ‘If I get laid off from this job, I'm never working in oil and gas again.’”
So Warren did an MBA at Memorial University, then spent time working for a small renewable energy company. Last fall, her 10-year dream was finally realized: she got a job with an offshore wind company in Massachusetts.
“The best decision I ever made was going back to school,” she said.
Many people don’t understand that plenty of fossil fuel workers care about climate change and see the impact the industry has on the environment, she added.
“A lot of oil companies are shifting their focus towards (renewable) technologies because the shareholders are forcing them to do it, but also because their employees are probably sounding the alarm,” she said.
“The company I was with before, they have a full renewable energy division now. They're also doing wind projects. If I had stuck around with them, I might still have been on this path.”
Stephen Buhler, a journeyman machinist, got into oil and gas straight out of high school when he graduated in 2008. Based in Edmonton, he wanted to enter the trades, and the energy industry was where the jobs were.
Even then, he said, he knew it wasn’t going to last forever. He watched his dad, who also worked in the sector, ride out boom and bust cycles. And he knew emissions from fossil fuels were driving climate change.
“It was just kind of like always in the ether that transition was coming,” he said. “We need to be prepared for it, and I need to prepare myself for it.”
In late 2018, Buhler started volunteering with a local environmental group, Climate Justice Edmonton. People there pointed him towards Iron & Earth.
Buhler’s current job mostly serves the oil and gas industry. Most jobs in his field do, but his employer could work in renewable energy as well, he said.
“Even the company has stated ... in the past that they are absolutely able to work in renewable energy and kind of look forward to it, which is definitely encouraging,” he added.
Many workers are willing to transition out of oil and gas if they have alternatives that provide them the same level of stability, Buhler said. Some may need extra training. If governments are willing to be bold and brave, he added, they can help.
“I wish that people understood that for the vast majority of oil and gas workers, they're not doing those jobs because it's in oil and gas, they're doing it because it pays well,” he said.
“Nobody's going to be upset if they're not pulling bitumen out of the ground. They just want to make sure that they've got a good paycheque, and that they can put food on the table.”