Students work in big oil

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Student groups want UVic to divest from fossil fuel holdings, but the University has another connection to the oil industry: the training and recruitment of employees.

In the past five years, eight per cent of the environmental studies co-op placements were with petroleum producers, according to Vanessa Stofer of UVic Co-op and Career Services. This does not include students working in the field indirectly, like those who do public outreach on used oil recycling, or biodiversity monitoring.

In summer 2014, Fraser Read, a fourth year psychology student, worked as an assistant industrial pesticide applicator for Marksmen Vegetation Management. The company does contract work for Canadian Natural Resources, Black Pearl, and Cenovus, UVic’s third largest fossil fuel holding.

Read controlled vegetation at oil-lease sites. “The vast majority was a vast blanket kill,” said Read. “Sometimes we’d do pipeline work and get rid of anything that could interfere with them.”

Fraser got the job through the humanities co-op. For oil companies, there are many benefits to hiring a co-op student. Each work term acts as a four-month interview of a potential employee. Many employers hire co-op students after graduation, which means lower recruitment and training costs, as well as higher retention. There are also funding opportunities to subsidize students’ wages.

UVic’s co-op program makes jobs in the oil industry available to students in every discipline. Students in biochemistry work for companies that analyze air, water, and soil samples provided by oil companies.

“I generally have between 10 and 20 co-op students working in this area each year” said Rozanne Poulson, the co-op coordinator for biochemistry and microbiology. “One to five of these become contract employees following graduation.”

Andrew Denhoff, an environmental studies grad, started working for Cenovus last year during his undergrad. The next summer, he was offered a promotion to environmental advisor and a full-time job after graduation.

Natural resources appealed to him because of the potential to make change. He says non-profits are often limited by budget and lack access to up-to-date information. They rely publicly disclosed data and companies have little incentive to release these figures. This makes it difficult for non-profits to get an accurate picture of things like carbon emissions or wildlife distribution. “In [the] industry I have direct access to the means to make positive growth from the inside,” said Denhoff. “I can push for change.”

For Read, it was about getting a different perspective on the industry, but there were also financial considerations. “[As a student,] you do not get the same sort of opportunities to make a large sum of money in a short amount of time,” he said.

His job for Marksmen paid substantially more than most other co-op jobs. He worked 70 or more hours a week which meant a lot of overtime. “I was making double, maybe triple what I would doing something else.”

Writing student Joseph Leroux thinks that every industry is connected to petroleum in some way. “But I definitely would not go and work in the oil sands for a summer,” said Leroux. “I don’t see how I could do that and not have a big moral quandary with how I was spending my time.”

Malkolm Boothroyd, an active member of Divest UVic, has organized several events and recently sat on a panel at Monday’s Forum on Divestment. He doesn’t believe that positive change from within the petroleum industry is possible. “There are people who have spent entire careers trying to engage with the fossil fuel industry who are now coming forward and saying that it is completely futile,” said Boothroyd. He doesn’t see value in changing specific business practices within the industry. “The problem is their entire business model.”

Suncor recently laid off of 1000 workers in the face of plummeting oil prices. “This shows that it’s risky to put all our eggs in the basket of the tar sands,” said Boothroyd.

Denhoff agrees that the drop in prices will mean less jobs for students. “Since things are slowing down I would imagine you’ll see less last minute postings,” he said. “In particular, the service sector is harder hit as they rely on ongoing work from the industry to pay for new students.”

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