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Into the wind - be as technically savvy as possible

Keith MacPhail smiles into the camera.
Energy industry insider and SAIT graduate Keith MacPhail speaks about the influence and vitality of technology in the energy industry.

An unprecedented pandemic; a difficult economic outlook; global uncertainty — these overwhelming challenges call for innovation and insight. They also call for conversation, discussion and debate — for gaining personal perspectives from people on the frontlines.

Few know the ins and outs of Alberta’s energy industry like Keith MacPhail (PT ’81).

A graduate of SAIT’s Petroleum Technology diploma program in 1981, MacPhail entered the industry in 1984 and, after working for Poco Petroleums and Canadian Natural Resources, started his own successful energy companies: Bonavista Energy and NuVista Energy. In 2019, he was recognized as a Member of the Order of Canada for his leadership in business. MacPhail is also a leader at SAIT, having served on the Board of Governors and chaired the Promising Futures Campaign TM. And in 2007, he was named SAIT’s Distin­guished Alumnus. Today, the MacPhail School of Energy prepares students for all sectors of the energy industry including electricity, water, environment, petrochemical and oil and gas.

"I think the changes in technology usage and emission reductions in the energy sector have been remarkable over the last decade. But this is not well understood by the public."

What were some of the biggest challenges the energy sector faced when you were first starting out?

KM: They were mostly the same kind of challenges that we see today. We’ve always been price-takers in our industry, as opposed to price-setters; Canada has very little control over what we sell our natural gas, crude oil or condensate for. The main challenge in our business is just being able to manage through the volatility of the price changes.

What other obstacles is the sector facing these days?

KM: COVID-19 has dampened energy demand considerably. Our inability to access the best markets in the world, because of a lack of infrastructure such as pipelines, is causing us to sell our product at a significant discount. And as a result of all the new technology that’s come into the industry in the past decade or so, we are seeing a fairly significant increase in supply in the United States, our biggest customer. Because the U.S. has increased its supply so much, it doesn’t need as much Canadian energy.

So, technology has led to certain challenges in the sector, but can it also play a role in future-proofing energy-focused careers?

KM: Technology comes down to automation. For example, not requir­ing engineers or administrators to manually input data. Or being able to access real-time data on our desktops, whether it’s a drilling operation or mon­itoring the flow of barrels. Automation and technology will enable us to make quicker and more efficient decisions, which ultimately leads to lower costs and more productivity.

SHAPING ENERGY'S NEXT GENERATION

When SAIT's energy department was renamed for Keith MacPhail in 2005, it became Canada's first school of energy and the only academic school to be named after a SAIT graduate. Today, the MacPhail School of Energy is developing a new brand centred on integrating all viable forms of energy - and MacPhail himself has played a role in the exercise.

"I think the changes in technology usage and emission reductions in the energy sector have been remarkable over the last decade. But this shift is not well understood by the general public," he says. "The MacPhail School of Energy's rebranding will support a change of perception by including an environmental component to course work and teaching students about the ways in which this industry is trying to produce more oil and gas in an environmentally friendly manner."

How will SAIT’s new School for Advanced Digital Technology help prepare future energy professionals and support those who currently work in the sector?

KM: I think the direction that SAIT is heading with this new school is really spot-on. Adaptability and flexibility will play an increasingly significant role in this industry. People will need to be able to take on various tasks at work, as opposed to having just one dedicated focus. I’m looking to make sure that pro­spective hires are as technically savvy as possible. Now and into the future, that will be just as important as knowing how to drill a well or put in a pipeline. Future employers are going to be looking for knowledge of broad digital skills.

Into the wind series

LINK magazine reached out to eight past recipients of SAIT’s Alumni Awards, asking for their advice on meeting the future, head-on. Dive into the series, Into the wind...

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