When I got out of high school in the early 1980s Canada’s oil and gas industry was in crisis.
OPEC had turned on the taps, cutting oil prices to the bone in what would wind up being almost a decade of prolonged famine.
A huge oversupply of natural gas in North America meant the commodity was almost worthless.
And Pierre Trudeau’s government in Ottawa added to the misery by increasing uncertainty through its National Energy Program that led to a mass exodus of multinational oil companies from western Canada.
Bright young people planning their careers concluded the industry was part of the past and chased opportunities in other industries and other cities.
Yes, today’s doom and gloom is similar to the ugly ’80s.
But what people are forgetting is what followed those hard times—the biggest boom of all time started in the 1990s with the expansions of Suncor and Syncrude and the construction of Albian Sands and the Scotford Upgrader. The natural gas boom early this century that led to the tight gas revolution. The thermal oilsands boom and then the tight oil revolution.
The seeds of all these booms were planted in the middle of a decade of despair. Some of those seeds were technological, like truck and shovel mining and hydrotransport replacing bucketwheels and conveyor belts in oilsands mines or the commercialization of SAGD.
Others were changes in government policies, like the deregulation of gas markets by Brian Mulroney’s government or the backing of the petrochemical industry by the Alberta government. Yet others were out of the industry’s control, like the massive increase in oil and gas demand that came as world trade liberalized.
Enough of a core group of young people committed to the industry to overcome its challenges and nurture it back to growth. And they were well rewarded for their efforts when better days returned.
Some of the challenges today are the same as in the past, including managing costs in an over-supplied market. But there are new challenges too, like cutting CO2 emissions in the production, processing and burning of fossil fuels.
The bright young people in high schools and universities plotting their futures right now should consider the opportunities and potential rewards that could come out of solving this generation’s energy challenges.
And those from the previous generation who stuck it out until better times returned should step up and give them a hand.
Plant your seeds now. You’ll reap what you sow.
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