'It's pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving': Why the West should move beyond an oilpatch economy

Working in the petroleum industry is only a good living if you're foresighted and fortunate enough to prepare for the bust, which always comes.

Petroleum industry jobs are only a good living if you prepare for the bust, which always comes

Workers prepare to start loading a tank car with oil at an Altex Energy terminal. The oil industry is 'global, immense and hell-bent on squeezing every penny out of the labour that goes into producing oil and gas,' says industry researcher Rylan Higgins. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Perhaps there is no other topic for which I am better prepared to write commentary than the oil and gas industry.

Ask my finger, it's a bit crooked thanks to a close encounter of the steel kind while working in Alberta's oil fields. Or ask my high-school girlfriend — during a dinner in the late 1980s, her mom could not quite grasp the subtleties of me dancing around the fact that our house had been repossessed by the bank after a downturn. Or ask the hundreds of oil and gas workers who have participated in research I've undertaken.

Growing up an oilpatch brat, working in the industry, conducting long-term social science research on its impacts — I am confident saying the energy sector is not all it's cracked up to be.

Importantly, this is not commentary on the workers, families and communities that support the industry. To them, I tip my hard hat.

But after a convoy of oilpatch workers recently headed to Edmonton to counter the public environmentalism of Greta Thunberg, I felt compelled to remind people what they were defending.

Trucks assemble in Red Deer, Alta., before the convoy drove into Edmonton in October as a counter protest to the Climate Strike Rally, which was attended by climate activist Greta Thunberg. (David Bajer/CBC)

When my father, who worked in oil and gas most of his life, was in his forties, I could imagine him firing up his Chevy half-ton and driving to Edmonton from southern Alberta to protest some teenage foreigner trying to derail the primacy of oil and gas in the province.

But in the latter years of his life, I doubt he'd have been up for it. He'd come to know the oil and gas industry much like I came to understand it.

In short, it's pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving. Chews you up, spits you out.

And I'm talking about people who have devoted their entire lives to it.

It's not a surprise. The power at the top is global, immense and hell-bent on squeezing every penny out of the labour that goes into producing oil and gas. The industry has long been one based on inequality, bootstrap individualism and high-octane opportunism.

I was born into oil and gas. It put our family through the wringer more than once, but especially during the '80s when the bottom fell out, and my dad lost everything but his shirt to plummeting oil prices.

Later, during one of the rather short-lived booms, I worked as a roughneck on both service rigs and drilling rigs. But I never planned to make it my career, in no small part because the experience gave me a first-hand look at what I would later learn through long-term anthropological research about the harsh impacts of oil and gas on individuals, families and communities.

Pumpjacks are seen pumping crude oil near Halkirk, Alta. Boom and bust cycles in the petroleum industry have been difficult to predict. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

Importantly, the industry does have its benefits, including relatively good wages. But it's only a good living if you're foresighted and fortunate enough to prepare for the bust, which always comes.

And even during the booms, workers and their families face challenges. Drilling for oil is often done in remote locations, and energy companies want rigs running 24 hours a day.

Jobs in this sector include shift work in places far from home, which means workers spend weeks if not months away from loved ones. Interview after interview (and personal experience) revealed families struggling with these arrangements. Shift work is hard on the body, and the long-term separation comes with all kinds of problems for families.

Oilpatch communities are always trying to keep up, and it seems like they never really can. Boom and bust cycles are unpredictable; community leaders are often just wrapping their minds around how to handle the impacts of a boom when the bust hits. Major labour and housing shortages can turn, basically overnight, into high unemployment and housing market crashes.

Not all booms and busts look the same, so even knowing this history does not always prepare communities.

The petroleum industry offers relatively good wages, but that's weighed against the sector's unpredictable boom and bust cycle that can see lucrative jobs disappear virtually overnight. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

And let's not forget just how opportunistic and contradictory the powerful people in the industry are. When times are good, they argue that government needs to get out of the way, that progress should not be impeded by labour or environmental regulations.

Consider, however, the fact that oil and gas are extracted on land secured from Indigenous people with the help of the government.

And what about the government subsidies from which the industry benefits? When the boom ends, industry enthusiasts are quick to fault the government for not prioritizing the sector's recovery.

There are a lot of good reasons to transition away from this industry.

It will be critical to consider the workers and families in the industry as we do so. The next economic arrangement should put workers, families and the environment first — and investors and corporate bigwigs last.

In short, we'd be better off without oil and gas, and I'd bet there are plenty of workers and families who'd love an economy based on more stable, just and environmentally friendly industries.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Rylan Higgins is an associate professor of anthropology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


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