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University of Calgary hits pause on bachelor’s program in oil and gas engineering

For more than two decades, the bachelor’s program in oil and gas engineering at the University of Calgary was popular with students seeking a career in energy — and maybe a job in one of the office towers downtown.

But after a long downturn in the oilpatch, enrolment at historic lows and the energy landscape changing, the university’s engineering school is suspending admission of new students to the undergraduate program. Existing students will still be able to complete their degree.

“It’s really been a great program for us; it typically used to be a high-demand program,” said Prof. Arin Sen, head of the department of chemical and petroleum engineering. “It wasn’t a decision that we came to lightly.”

The university said it has no plans to abandon oil and gas studies. Sen said there are still various paths for engineering students to pursue careers in oil and gas, including a minor in petroleum engineering or graduate studies among any number of options.

“We’ve had partnerships with that sector for four decades … and we’re going to continue doing that.”

The news comes during a period of change in the broader energy sector, including the growth of renewable technologies, government commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions and uncertainty about long-term demand for fossil fuels. 

In Canada, the oil and gas sector is also trying to emerge from a long downturn that resulted in thousands of layoffs. Meanwhile, energy demand continues to increase worldwide.

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Many people who worked in oil and gas in downtown Calgary lost jobs during a prolonged downturn in the oilpatch, a time when enrolment in the bachelor of oil and gas engineering also declined. (Jeff McIntosh/TheCanadian Press)

The oil and gas engineering undergraduate program at the university’s Schulich School of Engineering was one of several routes students could follow to a career in the petroleum sector, including chemical, mechanical, civil engineering and others.

Typically, about 40 new students would enter the program annually, but it graduated fewer than 10 last year. 

The university began a review of the program and — following consultations with students, alumni, faculty and industry — received provincial approval to suspend it.

Sen said oil and gas isn’t going away any time soon, but added it’s also clear people are looking at other forms of energy — not just in Alberta, but globally. 

He pointed to activity in areas such as hydrogen, geothermal and renewable energy. The provincial government is also exploring small modular nuclear reactors.

Sen said resources will be allocated to exploring ways to better support students who want to work in the province’s evolving energy industry, including oil and gas.

The energy engineering program, which has an oil and gas component but also exposes students to renewable energy and sustainability, has been an area of growth.

Engineering is not the only department feeling a shift in student interests.

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Alberta is expected to see significant growth in renewable energy, a growing area of study at the U of C. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The U of C has also seen a five-year decrease in the number of undergrads with a concentration in petroleum geology, which is offered by the department of geoscience.

But the faculty of science has seen growing interest and demand toward programs like energy science, said spokesperson Gloria Visser-Niven.

The faculty is responding with courses in energy transformation and distribution, mature energy fields like hydroelectricity and nuclear energy, and renewable energy, she said. 

It’s also consulting with the engineering school on developing a new energy science minor program with a range of renewable energy courses and research opportunities.

“Energy education continues to evolve in response to global market forces and societal demand for lower carbon energy sources,” Visser-Niven said in an email. 

WATCH | Why student interest in petroleum courses is waning:

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Tough times in the industry and a shifting energy landscape are part of the reason enrolment is down, says Arin Sen, a professor and head of the department of chemical and petroleum engineering. 0:59

At Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., where many engineering graduates have found work in the petroleum industry over the years, there’s also greater interest in renewable energy like solar, wind and tidal power.

“We’re also looking at … focusing a bit more carefully on greener technologies and these sorts of things,” said Dennis Peters, Memorial University’s acting dean of the faculty of engineering and applied science. 

“That’s where the world is going and … we’re recognizing the environment we’re in.”

According to PetroLMI, which studies labour force data across the oil and gas sector, the industry is expected to hire a net total of 19,800 people over the next three years.

It forecasts that engineers and geoscientists will make up about seven percent of that number. That includes petroleum, civil, mechanical, mining and chemical engineers.

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Amanda Quinn is entering her final year of study in energy engineering at the University of Calgary. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

David Langille, who received a master’s degree in petroleum engineering at the U of C, is the incoming chair of the Society of Petroleum Engineers Canadian Educational Foundation, a group promoting energy literacy that offers scholarships to engineering students.

He said young engineers today are thinking about the future and the energy transition.

“New engineers, aspiring engineers, aspiring geoscientists, are definitely trying to future-proof themselves a little bit more,” Langille said. 

“They’re thinking, ‘OK, hey, I’m a petroleum engineer now, but where else am I going to be able to work this in [to] the energy system in the future?”

Amanda Quinn wants a career in energy and sees opportunities across the spectrum.

She’s entering her final year in the U of C’s energy engineering program and is now on an internship at a company working on desalination technology to help provide drinking water.

Quinn, who has two sisters in oil and gas, hopes the conversation about the energy transition becomes less polarized and focused on stereotypes, and more focused on solutions.

“There’s so much more technology that we can develop in the future in regards to harnessing energy,” she said.

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