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Former Oilpatch Roughneck Traces Hardships of Fossil Employment, Urges Better Deal in Carbon-Free Transition

Joshua Doubek/Wikipedia

The boom and bust nature of a fossil-fuel based economy, together with the callous greed of those at the top, means a “pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving” existence for oilpatch workers, self-described “oilpatch brat,” one-time roughneck, and oil and gas anthropologist Rylan Higgins writes in a recent CBC op ed.

“Perhaps there is no other topic for which I am better prepared to write commentary than the oil and gas industry” he writes. “Ask my finger, it’s a bit crooked thanks to a close encounter of the steel kind while working in Alberta’s oil fields. Or ask my high school girlfriend—during a dinner in the late 1980s, her mom could not quite grasp the subtleties of me dancing around the fact that our house had been repossessed by the bank after a downturn. Or ask the hundreds of oil and gas workers who have participated in research I’ve undertaken.”

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Higgins, now a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, recalls [2] watching a “convoy of oilpatch workers” journeying to Edmonton in a bid to counter #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg [3]. He says he could well imagine his own father as a young man, “firing up his Chevy half-ton and driving to Edmonton from southern Alberta to protest some teenage foreigner trying to derail the primacy of oil and gas in the province.”

But “in the latter years of his life, I doubt he’d have been up for it,” Higgins says.” Not after his dad had “come to know the oil and gas industry much like I came to understand it.” That is, that “it’s pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving. Chews you up, spits you out.”

While “relatively good wages” do make the sector attractive, he adds, “it’s only a good living if you’re foresighted and fortunate enough to prepare for the bust, which always comes.”

And even the boom times bring significant hardships, writes Higgins, especially for workers with families. “Drilling for oil is often done in remote locations, and energy companies want rigs running 24 hours a day.” Shift work takes its toll on the individual, and extended periods of separation from loved ones “comes with all kinds of problems for families”.

That hardship occurs far from a power structure that is “global, immense, and hell-bent on squeezing every penny out of the labour that goes into producing oil and gas.”

Meanwhile, “oilpatch communities are always trying to keep up, and it seems like they never really can,” Higgins observes. That’s because “boom and bust cycles are unpredictable; community leaders are often just wrapping their minds around how to handle the impacts of a boom when the bust hits.” That dynamic produces a devastating degree of socio-economic whiplash, as “major labour and housing shortages can turn, basically overnight, into high unemployment and housing market crashes.”

Noting that the fossil industry has “long been one based on inequality, bootstrap individualism, and high-octane opportunism,” Higgins urges those working to transition Canada into the green economy “to consider the workers and families in the industry as we do so.” He adds that “the next economic arrangement should put workers [to whom he “tips his hard hat”], families, and the environment first—and investors and corporate bigwigs last.”