Life After the Rigs

Coming home from the Canadian oil sands

Leif Gregersen

Aerial photo of the oil sands

Satellite image of oil sand production facilities near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada in June 2020. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2020.

Valerie Pierson was just 18 when she first made connections that allowed her to find work on the oil rigs in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She was passionate about cooking and eager to learn; jobs came easily, and the money was good. 

Like many oil and gas workers, she worked different rigs for a few years, saving as much as she could, then returned home to Edmonton to complete her education after a road trip to California. Valerie sees her days on oil rigs as a vehicle that allowed her to travel and eventually become a journeyman baker.

“There were good rigs and bad rigs. Every rig had some alcohol. Drugs weren’t as much of an issue when I worked there – maybe a little pot, but never cocaine or crack like you hear of now,” Valerie says. 

“The good rigs kept the flow of booze to a manageable level. We had a lot of accidents; safety was an issue. It got worse when there had been heavy drinking, even from drinking the night before.” With a laugh, she adds that there were moments working in the North that were memorable. 

“Once the head cook had me come outside to watch a scarlet red sunrise that only lasted five minutes, then the sun dipped back below the horizon. Often the aurora borealis came out in all its glory. That almost made it worth being away from home.”

For so many young people, especially where I grew up near Edmonton, Alberta, the magical pull to work in the oil sands in the North was a strong one. When I was 16, my best friend came to me after talking with his uncle, an oil rig worker. He said guys our age could go up North and get easy jobs paying thousands a month. He also said we would be considered men, not kids. 

I managed to talk my friend out of giving up the privileged lives we had as students, at least until we got our high school diplomas, but the idea of cashing in in “the Patch” stayed at the back of our minds, sort of as a last resort for employment.

About 138,000 people are employed in the oil and gas industry in Alberta. Everyone here has felt the effects of the boom-and-bust economy we have in this province, directly tied to the price of oil.

Getting a job on an oil rig seems easy, especially in boom times, but keeping up with the stress and strain of the job can be next to impossible.

Many urban Albertans have a negative opinion of oil rigs in general. Some say rig workers have more money than brains, though there are those who get university degrees and just can’t beat the money they can make up North. There are also those who party a little too much when they get time in the city. Alcohol abuse affects 12% of Alberta rig workers.

The oil sands, once known as the tar sands, are in a Florida-sized section of Canada’s boreal forest, home to hundreds of First Nations communities and a plethora of animal species. Many environmentalists see the oil sands as a threat to all these, not to mention that when the oil is processed and used, it contributes to greenhouse gases and is also an essential part of the production of single-use, non-biodegradable plastics. 

The bitumen the big companies are after is mostly in northern Alberta, and extracting and processing it to make useable oil out of the product is an extremely expensive process. In some areas, it is deep underground and must be drilled, then treated with steam to separate the oil from the sand. North of Fort McMurray, many of the bitumen deposits are in shallow enough places that it can be strip-mined in huge open pits.

Most often, oil rig work takes place in remote locations and the oil workers live in camps. The camps offer little social or cultural life. While the workers are on shift, everything focuses on working. When the crews are off rotation, the company flies them home. 

Getting a job on an oil rig seems easy, especially in boom times, but keeping up with the stress and strain of the job can be next to impossible. Several people have posted YouTube videos describing their experiences. Listening to their stories, one gets the overwhelming impression that being a roughneck (rig worker) requires a person to work as hard and as fast as possible and not make any errors. Any sign of slowing down or making mistakes tends to be met with loud, harsh, verbally abusive language from other crew members or the “push” (supervisor). 

Watching a company video of the work that takes place on a drilling floor, I was astonished at how fast workers had to manipulate heavy pieces of drilling equipment. The video emphasized that when a person is on the drilling floor, they must be mindful of every step. Miss one and they could be injured or killed. 

In addition to having to do their work in a thick coat of slippery oil, workers often must deal with punishingly cold conditions, as well as the serious risks to life and health they face from dangers such as hydrogen sulfide gas and high rates of substance use disorders stemming from workplace stress and social isolation. In 2021, it was estimated 349 people had died in oil rig accidents in Western Canada over the previous 20 years.

Boom, bust, and … reskill

When the price of oil dips, it isn’t economically viable to produce oil from the oil sands in Alberta. When it rises, everything goes into high gear, a situation  that causes “boom and bust” cycles. This situation has prompted a call to diversify the Alberta economy to help prevent such extremes.

In addition to the peaks and valleys, there is an overall decline in the sector that will eventually need to be faced one way or another. According to a 2023 report from Clean Energy Canada, jobs in the oil sands and oil production are set to decline by at least 93% between 2025 and 2050, regardless of what policies are in place.

The idea of a “just transition” – an equitable or prosperous transition to a renewable and sustainable economy – has been around since the ’70s. Although Alberta’s current political leadership appears dead set against any kind of renewable energy transition, diversifying Alberta’s energy economy would strengthen it against oil price shocks and would give the workers who are burning out on the oil and gas sector much-needed alternatives for a more stable, reliable way to earn a living.

There is currently a non-profit organization, Iron and Earth, that aims to assist the people who work in the fossil fuel industry to transition into work in the renewable energy sector. They understand the urgent need for skilled workers in green energy, and offer programs that lower barriers to building community-led climate solutions for a sustainable future through engagement, training programs, infrastructure projects and career platforms.

Iron & Earth has had much success and media attention since they were formed over lunchroom tables in the Canadian oil sands during an oil price crash in 2016 that caused 100,000 workers to lose their jobs. Their programs support people who have been dependent on the oil and gas industry all their lives to do such things as retrain for jobs that don’t rely on fossil fuels, to form their own companies doing such things as installing and maintaining solar panels, or to work in other clean energy transition projects such as wind turbines or hydro-electric projects. Current estimates are that there will be 700,000 new energy jobs in Canada should we meet our net-zero goals.

At one time, I had little writing experience, and going up North was one of my few options to make decent money. I luckily found a union job setting up stages which allowed me to invest time and money in the writing career I had dreamed of before I was too old to keep up with the demanding physical work and schedule. Better government investment to educate and train all young people for meaningful work or clean energy work will be an essential first step in transitioning away from fossil fuels. Why leave home and family and make all those sacrifices if you have a bright future right where you are?

 


Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher, and public speaker who has written 12 books.

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