Canadian Manufacturing

Enrolment drops in N.L.’s oil focused engineering programs; students in it for change

Just two students are enrolled in the university's oil and gas engineering PhD program this year, down from 11 students in 2016-2017.

November 1, 2021  The Canadian Press

Newfoundland and Labrador’s post-secondary institutions are seeing a steep drop in enrolment in oil-focused engineering programs as the province’s offshore oil industry tries to claw its way out of a downturn.

And many of those who have enrolled say they did so because they want to bring change to the industry in the era of climate change.

“What I would like to do is to make it more sustainable,” said Brooklyn Hollett, a fourth-year undergraduate student in process engineering at Memorial University in St. John’s. “To make it so there’s less emissions and it’s not so hard on the environment.”

Figures from the College of the North Atlantic show the number of students in its programs geared toward the oil industry — petroleum and chemical process engineering technology — declined steadily from 157 students in 2016-2017 to 73 in 2020-2021. The school did not provide data for this academic year.

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At Memorial, the number of students completing a master’s degree in oil and gas engineering went from 56 in 2016-17 to 69 in 2017-18, before falling to 30, then 20, then 19 in successive years.

Just two students are enrolled in the university’s oil and gas engineering PhD program this year, down from 11 students in 2016-2017.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil industry was hit hard in recent years by a crash in global oil prices, which was promptly followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.In response, three of the province’s four offshore oil projects halted some or all of their plans or operations, and the provincial government parcelled out $320 million in aid provided by Ottawa.

All four projects are big polluters: in 2019, they were among the top six per cent of greenhouse gas emitters among over 700 Canadian oil and gas extraction projects, according to data from the federal Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. All are expected to keep pumping for at least another decade.

Greg Naterer, dean of engineering and applied science at Memorial, said the pandemic had an impact on enrolment. But students are also driven by growing concern about climate change and the need for the industry to curb emissions and develop renewable energy sources, he said.

The University of Calgary has suspended admissions for its undergraduate program in oil and gas engineering, citing a growing student interest in more renewable forms of energy. A similar move wouldn’t make sense at Memorial, Naterer said. “This is not the first time that we’ve ever seen fluctuations in enrolments,” he said. “The students want to be part of the solution rather than the problem, and that’s what our programs allow them to do.”