Labour Shortages, Indigenous Reconciliation, Cleantech Funding Top Priorities: CAOEC Panel

Mark Scholz speaking during the event. Photo credit: Bill Marsh Photography.

Higher commodity prices the last year have lifted the fortunes of conventional oil and gas producers and their oilfield service company partners in the last year but meeting demand for skilled workers remains difficult, Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAOEC) president and chief executive officer Mark Scholz said at the association’s annual luncheon in Calgary on Friday.

Indigenous economic reconciliation is another top priority for the sector and is a work in progress, said Scholz, as is finding funding to implement cleantech needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry is facing roadblocks in attracting new talent said Scholz, including stiff competition from other sectors in an economy with low overall unemployment. There is a dominant negative narrative that oil and gas is a sunset industry with no long-term career prospects that discourages new talent from entering the industry. And skillsets are changing as technology plays an increasing role in everyday workflows.

“Attracting and retaining new workers isn’t easy, it’s proven to be incredibly difficult,” said Scholz. “We need to increase investment in people to get training.”

Indigenous people could be part of the solution, said Stephen Buffalo, president and chief executive officer of the Indian Resource Council (IRC). Buffalo, along with Tristan Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (EPAC), and Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Jim Reiter joined Scholz in a roundtable discussion at the event.

Around 350 young Indigenous people got a taste of working in the industry through the wellsite reclamation program, with 90 per cent of those workers doing reclamation work on the land, Buffalo said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a start. Now they need to get more education.”

Education funding is limited on reserves, said Buffalo. It’s also difficult for people who grew up on reserves to adapt to moving to major cities for school — they need support.

“We need to work with these communities and offer training. Then we’ll start meeting the need,” he said, “If you get the chance, help some young men or women become active in the industry. Help make the education process easier.”

Training Indigenous workers would be a win-win scenario, EPAC’s Goodman said. “We’re about to face a major labour crunch yet we have people living in poverty. I think that’s unacceptable. There’s a real opportunity here.”

Economic reconciliation is a much bigger challenge than training and hiring Indigenous workers, Buffalo added. “When there is activity on our land, we want to be part of it. Bringing home a paycheque is better than a handout but we’re moving past benefit agreements and jobs. It’s now equity partnerships.”

The Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC) launched by former premier Jason Kenney, has been pivotal in helping communities get a stake in industry, said Buffalo.

Saskatchewan has launched a similar fund. The Saskatchewan Indigenous Investment Finance Corporation provides loan guarantees up to $75 million to seed Indigenous-equity ownership of major projects in mining, energy, oil and gas, forestry, and value-added agriculture. The fund was created after consultation with Indigenous leaders who said access to capital was their greatest challenge, said energy and resources minister Reiter.

Meeting the decarbonization challenge will also require funding, said Reiter, but first Canada needs to develop a cohesive plan that competes with the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

“They’re eating our lunch right now,” he said. “The federal government needs to respond with a strategy — not a few one-offs. Right now, they’re dropping the ball on this.”

There are commercial technologies available including fuel switching, electrification of equipment and even batteries that oilfield service companies could be using to help decarbonize the conventional sector, said Scholz. The problem is implementing the technologies costs money many companies don’t have. “The 42 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 applies to the conventional side. There is existing equipment but it’s not easy to deploy in an industry that is just recovering.”

“The technology is available today. The challenge is capital,” he said. “If we want to come close to meeting the target, the federal government needs to provide support.”

Until last year, the conventional sector, “was devastated,” said Goodman. But it still made progress, particularly on methane emissions. “We actually have a story to tell. But policy is sometimes frustrating.”

Any new emissions policy needs to ensure the sector remains competitive, he added.

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