Agriculture an option for displaced oil and gas workers

28, Apr, 2021

Late last year, the Government of Canada introduced the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in parliament. With Canada joining other countries in targeting net-zero emissions by 2050, and more countries transitioning to sustainable sources, changes to the oil and gas sector, and the larger energy sector, are already well underway.

In agriculture, a steadily growing global population and limited land left means the demand for well-educated, hard-working individuals is ramping up. Luckily for the agriculture sector in Alberta, that cavalry is already within our borders.

In April 2020, oil prices across the world plummeted, partially from the pandemic. Western Canada Select (WCS) listed price per barrel of oil at $3.50 US, substantially lower even than prices seen during the oil crisis of 2014. Other factors like low global prices and less capital spending led to more than 14,000 jobs lost across Canada’s oil and gas sector.

While a portion of these job losses may be temporary, the global drift from natural resource energy signifies that some will be permanent. This situation is especially hairy for Alberta, which decades ago used its bountiful oil reserves to become invaluable to Canada’s economy – and defined itself by this as a result.

In the time since, the province has become known for its massive crude oil production (making up 80.5 per cent of Canada’s crude oil production in 2019) and its highly skilled workforce of hundreds of thousands of energy workers. As the energy industry dips in employment opportunities, there comes the question of what the future holds for these individuals, career-wise.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Oil and gas isn’t Alberta’s only sector with serious weight behind its punches. As mentioned above, the answer to where certain numbers of the industry can take their talents might rest with Alberta’s other power player, agriculture.

“A lot of our oil and gas engineers, the skills that have come out of that industry, a lot of them are transferable into agriculture,” says Lindsay Smylie. Smylie is the business development manager, agribusiness, with Calgary Economic Development.

Many of the skills found in the energy industry are transferrable to agriculture.
Image courtesy of Calgary Economic Development.

Smylie points to NuLeaf Farms as a prime example of this skillset transferability in action. The vertical indoor farming operation was started by three individuals with substantial industrial and energy experience.

“They have applied their knowledge and their skillset into developing a modular greenhouse basically, a system that can be fit into any warehouse, like any warehouse-standard space.”

In fact, the company was developed as a direct response to the conditions happening in both the agriculture and energy sectors.

“In 2016, the decline in Canada’s agriculture industry combined with the need for Alberta to diversify into other sustainable business sectors outside of oil and gas brought three individuals together to form NuLeaf Farms,” the company’s website reads.

“Between the three of us, at the time, we had close to 60 years’ experience delivering these advanced, industrial scale projects,” says company co-founder Ryan Wright. Wright is also NuLeaf’s president. With that combined experience between Wright and his other co-founders, he says it was easy to see the writing on the wall.

“We were seeing some of the struggles that were coming in oil and gas,” Wright says.

“We were hearing a lot about. It still happens today, everybody pushing for sustainability, and obviously agriculture stood out like a sore thumb, as something that needs to be basically improved, for us to continue forward as a civilization, to be able to efficiently use the resources we have,” he says.

“We kind of got tired of hearing everybody talk about it, [and] nobody doing anything about it.”

While Wright’s team have applied what they took from the sectors they’ve come from to help agriculture evolve for the needs of tomorrow, industry think tanks have taken steps to foster more of that kind of innovative thinking.

On 9 September 2020, leaders from both the energy and agriculture sectors got together to hold an inaugural summit conference called Growing Forward Together: The Alberta Advantage. JWN Energy, Weather Innovations and Radicle, along with Ag for Life and the Energy Futures Lab joined forces to discuss how the two Albertan industries can adapt to evolving market forces.

The summit had more than 123 representatives from the agriculture and energy sectors. Large takeaways from the summit and its eponymous November report were findings around how many challenges can be solved by increased collaboration between agriculture and energy.

“The key challenge for Alberta’s ag and energy players … is to be in constant contact – and making and sharing insights that make the collaboration flywheel spin faster,” the report reads.

As evidenced in cases like NuLeaf Farms, it’s not only the energy sector that stands to benefit from more collaboration. The partnership is one that would be as beneficial for agriculture as for energy.

The problems agriculture faces around workforce shortage, and concerns around climate change and emissions reductions, can be examined from a new light by those with energy backgrounds. For the highly-skilled and versatile workforce in Alberta oil and gas, it’s a perfect match.


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