A view from Canada’s oil sector

As part of our coverage of a ‘just transition’ to a green economy, we speak with oil and gas specialist Julia McElgunn.

By: , /
January 11, 2019
An oil pump jack pumps oil in a field near Calgary, Alberta, on July 21, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol/File Photo

With carbon pricing and pipeline construction continuing to be divisive issues throughout Canada, energy policy will no doubt be part of campaign debates in the lead up to the October federal election.

With that in mind, we asked Calgary-based oil and gas specialist Julia McElgunn, who has worked nearly 20 years in the sector, for her views on how the industry is changing, what role fossil fuels play in a green transition, and what perspectives may be missing from the conversation. 

Her view is one of several OpenCanada has published over the past year on Canada’s fine balance between economic, political and environmental considerations when it comes to its energy infrastructure. In late 2018, Tzeporah Berman called for greater respect of the consultation process with Canada’s Indigenous communities. In June, Matthew Hoffman pointed to the tension between groups that see climate change as an emergency and those that view it as a manageable issue, calling for a “just transition toward decarbonization.” Here, McElgunn reminds Canadians of the value and prominence of oil, and shares what she has learned after two decades in the industry.  

Can you describe the range of jobs you’ve had and companies you’ve worked for?

I’ve worked my entire career in the sector. After high school and during university I worked labour jobs during the summers at gas plants, as well as at pipeline construction and environmental companies. One summer I was a manual labourer in Fort St. John, in northeast BC, on the construction of the Alliance pipeline, which runs to Chicago.

Throughout my geological career, I’ve worked mainly for Canadian companies of differing sizes, both big corporations and smaller junior companies, as well as one international company that had land in Texas. My job has been to map the subsurface finding areas to drill for successful oil and gas extraction. The mapping is done by using data collected in nearly all wells drilled in Alberta and seismic data to create geological models that represent these subsurface horizons.

What kind of changes have you seen in the sector in recent years?

The industry has drastically changed. The words “layoff” and “jobless” are part of our vocabulary now and the feeling of dismay and worry is widely felt within our society. According to Jason Kenney, the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Albertans have lost 50 times more jobs over the last couple of years than the number of jobs that will be lost when Oshawa’s GM plant closes this year. Not only have the jobs in oil companies been vastly reduced, but both the oil field and society service industries are feeling the aftershock. Restaurants, professional health clinics, small businesses, even charities and non-profit organizations are seeing a decrease in revenue. The ripple effect has been severe and is leaving many people uncertain, worried and extremely careful with their budget.

Over the years, what have you learned about how Canadians use and value oil and gas products?

When I first graduated from university, I was not aware of the large oil sector that existed. I knew the field side of the industry, but was oblivious to the full cycle of production. Neither was I aware of the effect this natural resource has on our basic quality of living, or how everything we use is because of oil and gas. This naiveté is engrained in our Canadian culture. People just don’t realize that their cell phones, their makeup or their clothes are oil and gas products. They don’t understand that our food, whether you love mac ‘n’ cheese or enjoy fine dining, is a product of oil and gas. Moreover, there is a big misconception around renewables. All renewable energy we have today is only available because we had oil and gas first. Petroleum is in everything. This is not understood or accepted by many.

Is there a conversation happening at various levels within the sector around a transition to a greener economy? What is your view on that?

Absolutely. It would be primitive to assume there isn’t a need to consider a transition to alternatives. However, a transition that is completely independent of fossil fuels is centuries away. Electricity through wind, solar and water are only options because oil and gas is available to manufacture and transport the necessary components. We have not figured out how to provide the world with energy without using fossil fuels. The power of human creativity is immense, though, and we will likely get there eventually.

"A transition that is completely independent of fossil fuels is centuries away."

In the meantime, fossil fuels are going to be part of the transition. A tremendous impact starts by reducing the amount of energy used in our day-to-day activities. It is absolutely essential to become more energy efficient and value the petroleum we have access to today.

The conversation in the sector has been to provide Canada and the globe, temporarily, with the most ethical, sustainable and environmentally available fossil fuels as we search for the greener, cleaner alternatives. Canada’s oil is some of the greenest, cleanest oil in the world and can be a significant part of the initial transition solution.

What evidence is there of change already happening toward a green economy?

Companies are asking how they can reduce their carbon output and their overall footprint. The energy sector is constantly revolutionizing how it conducts its business. Each company has a department that focuses on Health, Safety and Environment (HSE), prioritizing safer workplaces and better environmental practices. This standard alone has reduced companies’ footprints. In addition, companies are implementing solar panels on their well sites to help run the facilities, they are focusing on using less fossil fuels to reduce their carbon footprint, and are thinking of ways to reuse and conserve energy.  

Where or with whom do you feel the most tension in your community on these issues?

The biggest tension comes from Canadians who don’t understand our sector. The protesting of all the national pipelines is hypocritical. These people are unaware that the transportation they use, the clothes they wear, all our basic needs and the high quality of life we have in Canada is a result of our access to oil and gas. Even if Alberta’s oil is landlocked and the oil industry completely crumbles, Canada will continue to import billions of barrels from countries that have less ethical practices, don’t value human life, and have often limited environmental standards. In fact, Eastern Canada imported almost 300 million barrels in 2017, at a value of approximately $14 billion, from such places. This will only increase if Alberta is shut down.

Do you see signs of any bridge building between groups?

The only way to bridge the gap is through education. More industry people are starting to speak up and inform. The truth about Canadian oil needs to become a more frequent topic of conversation, allowing others the ability to make informed decisions about their energy consumption. At the end of the day, we all want similar things and have similar values, but the divide over energy is tearing us apart.

What is your view on recent reports that state that substantial emissions reductions, as well as regional adaptation efforts, are still needed to avoid severe consequences in the long term?

The earth has had a dynamic history of climate change. As a geologist, it’s hard to look at 30-80 years of data and correlate a trend for the upcoming short term. A geological disaster like a volcano erupting or the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean spreading quicker cannot be avoided and could have severe consequences.

Having said that, humans have used so much energy since the industrial revolution that there is going to be a fall out. As a global community we do need to come together and figure out how to respect our earth more. If we aren’t more careful with pollution, sewage, water usage, consumerism and landfill practices, particularly plastic waste, we will destroy the planet in many more ways than just by climate change. Unfortunately, Canada’s lack of population and vast geographic size makes our response almost insignificant, but we can lead by example and set standards others will want to follow. Canada can become a leader for a greener, cleaner society, but needs to think about how to do this methodically, thoughtfully, and in such a way to keep our quality of life across all the provinces.

Do you think Canada will be able to help keep the rise of global warming to below 2 or 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement?

One of Canada’s greatest assets is its people’s ability to be innovative and creative. The petroleum sector continuously proves its ingenuity with major technological advances each time a hurdle is faced. These results benefit all sectors within Canada, and with the right focus and intent, a reduction in emissions will only be the beginning of what is achievable.

What does a just transition mean to you?

Personally speaking, a just transition comes from a common sense style of thinking. First, be honest about our standard of living and our expectations of that standard, then remember we all value our own existence. Second, a just transition has to consider how all Canadians can move towards the future without jeopardizing their current survival, which includes access to jobs and stability. Alberta is in crisis mode, with mental health concerns, depression and suicide on the rise. How can this current movement be a just transition when an entire portion of the country feels alienated, unimportant and cast away? 

Anything else on your mind?

We are all Canadians first. We are proud of our flag and we unite over hockey, the Olympics and our reputation around the world. Let’s not let our country be divided over the natural resources owned by each and every Canadian. Before you make a decision about how evil Alberta’s oil is, get informed about your current energy choices and how Canada is accessing its energy that is required each day. Ask questions, seek answers, find solutions. Together, we can be leaders of greener, cleaner alternatives, but we need to start accepting fossil fuels are here for the short term, while pushing the boundaries of what is currently possible.