University of Calgary looks to relaunch oil engineering program after hiatus

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The University of Calgary is planning a potential relaunch of its oil and gas engineering program, which it suspended three years ago due to dwindling student demand.

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.

While the university still has a number of hoops to jump through before it can officially relaunch the program, spokesman Joe McFarland confirmed in an email the process to restart it has begun.

While he did not say when the program would resume, he said the university is once again seeing demand from young people interested in pursuing careers in the oil and gas sector.

“We have engaged with our industry partners, and we look forward to having this important program resume,” McFarland said.

“(The University of Calgary) is always looking for ways to meet the needs of our students, industry and our community.”

The University of Calgary is located in Alberta’s largest city, which is home to the head offices of Canada’s largest energy companies.

Many of the university’s graduates go on to get jobs for those companies.

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) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing oil-and-gas sector downturn.

In addition, university administrators said public discourse about climate change and the energy transition was driving student interest in renewable and alternative energy sources.

Since then, however, oil prices have rebounded, and Canadian oil companies have been generating strong profits over the past two years.

Oil and gas remains Alberta’s No. 1 industry, and the province has also benefited in the last two years from an influx of international and interprovincial migrants seeking affordable homes and economic opportunity.

The war in Ukraine has also 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 the decline in interest from young people in oil and gas careers may have been driven partly by what he calls a “bad narrative” that existed at the time.

“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.”