Nelson Gutierrez is one of thousands of Albertans working in the oil and gas industry. He brought his family to Calgary a decade ago after fleeing the deteriorating political climate in Venezuelan. Here, he began to work as an electrical engineer in the oil and gas industry.

“I preferred a country where people from all over the world could offer their experience to contribute to the development of Canada,” said Gutierrez.

The oil and gas industry is a giant factor in Alberta’s economy, with mining and fossil fuels accounting for nearly 26 per cent of Alberta’s GDP in 2020. The oil and gas industry also directly accounts for 120,000 jobs, or 5.9 per cent of all employment in the province. 

A headshot of Nelson Gutierrez in his home. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY NELSON GUTIERREZ

Yet, the jobs created by the industry, as lucrative as they appear, are also quite unstable.

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gutierrez was laid off, leaving him without income. In a post-pandemic world, Gutierrez had to make the tough decision to move nearly 750 kilometres north, to Fort McMurray, in search of stable employment to be able to pay off his debts and take care of his family.

“When you live in a city of 1.3 million inhabitants you don’t want to go to a town of 80,000,” said Gutierrez. 

Gutierriez is excited about potential new opportunities in the energy industry. And as Alberta’s economy shifts to a less carbon-intensive future, workers like him and thousands of others will be essential to help this transition.

Change for oil and gas companies

As the world shifts towards greener energy sources, oil companies, like Suncor, are pushing towards lower-carbon options to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. 

Suncor has been investigating and applying methods such as the use of renewable liquid fuels — fuels made from organic materials such as natural and municipal waste. 

“When the fuel is combusted, then that same carbon is captured again, so it’s carbon recycling,” said Marianna Trujillo, a technology development lead of renewable liquid fuels at Suncor. “Instead of releasing new carbon into the atmosphere, we are looking for ways to utilise the carbon that already exists.”

Suncor has also partnered with LanzaTech, a company that has novel technology that allows for waste and greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, to be transformed into more useful chemicals, and renewable liquid fuels. 

Clean technology in Alberta

Oil companies like Suncor, are not the only ones working towards carbon neutrality however, as new clean energy corporations, both private and public, have also risen to the occasion. There are currently 945 total cleantech or clean technology companies with Alberta-based headquarters, 121 of those are focused on renewable energy generation. 

Gutierrez in work gear at a power plant. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY NELSON GUTIERREZ

Alberta cleantech corporations already account for a large portion of the employment rate. In 2020, there were over 137,000 Albertans employed in this field. According to the Alberta Energy Transition Study conducted for Calgary Economic Development, there could be up to 170,000 jobs created in the cleantech sector by 2050. 

A shift towards clean technologies may also reap economic benefits. The same study predicts that by 2050, if companies continue investing towards carbon neutrality, cleantech corporations could greatly surpass oil and gas in regards to impact on gross domestic product. 

As Alberta moves towards cleaner energy and away from the oil and gas industry that it has relied on for so long, things are looking up for workers in the oil and gas field. New opportunities will present themselves for these Albertan workers to also shift away from oil and gas, towards a clean, renewable source of energy. 

Among these individuals is Gutierrez who now works in Fort McMurray where he oversees and assists in the maintenance of power substations owned by Suncor. He says he is excited for the future, as he sees this shift as an important step for the province to take. 

“I would be interested in working as an engineer in this new field,” said Gutierrez. “I feel hopeful.”

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