It was the mid 1980s and perhaps not the best time to be pursuing one’s dream—if one lived in Alberta and that dream was related to the oil patch. The National Energy Program had come down on the province like a hammer and the oil industry was crippled. Jobs were few and far between.
Ken Lueers (‘85 BSc) was in his last two years of university, newly married to his wife Deb, and there wasn’t a lot of money. “But I had this passion around geology, and my folks always said ‘if that’s what interests you then chase after it.’”
It’s a story with a happy ending. With the support of his wife and parents, Lueers followed his heart and graduated from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science with a geology degree, landed his first job with Texaco, and the rest is history. Today, he is the president of ConocoPhillips Canada, one of the largest oil and natural gas companies in the country—and he and Deb will be celebrating their 30th anniversary this summer.
With fond memories of his time at the U of A, he singles out three faculty members who played an influential role in his university education: Fred Longstaffe, who taught him minerology; Charlie Stelck, who taught stratigraphy; and Brian Jones, who was a stern taskmaster as he supervised Lueers during field work. “They imparted a work ethic, a way to think, and created an opportunity for me; I’ll be indebted to them forever,” says Lueers. “I’m not sure I’d be here today in this position without the U of A. Being a student there was a key stepping stone in my career.”
When Lueers was working on his bachelor’s thesis, Longstaffe helped him by running his rock samples through an XRD machine, a piece of equipment used to determine the elements contained within a sample. Lueers says when he was on a tour of the Faculty a few years ago, he was quite surprised to see it was still using the same piece of equipment—so ConocoPhillips made a donation that allowed the faculty to buy a new XRD machine.
Lueers describes the relationship between his company and the Faculty of Science as collaborative, supportive, and a worthwhile investment. “When we talk about giving back to communities, one of the cornerstones is education. Education translates itself into wealth, whether it’s for the individual or the community. It just benefits everybody.”
By being actively engaged with the faculty and helping with the design of its technical programs, Lueers believes ConocoPhillips can also be part of the solution in the overall need for skilled Canadian workers. A departure from how business has been done in the past, companies now cannot be successful unless their functions and staff are closely integrated. Says Lueers, “When I look back, the functions were really siloed.” His advice for students and new graduates who want to be successful in the energy industry is to make sure they learn to work effectively in teams and to think broadly.
Lueers is upbeat about what lies ahead for his company and the Canadian resource industry in general. At present, most of the product ends up the U.S., but Lueers believes Canada will become an increasingly important global energy player.
There are still challenges to work through—including relatively weak commodity prices, the need for better market access, and finding sufficient skilled workers. He adds that it’s also important that the manufacturing sector in other parts of Canada is able to share in the benefits. “We have the opportunity to make Canada an even more outstanding country than it already is. We have the science, the skills, and the commitment to develop these resources responsibly.” The times and the energy industry have also changed in that respect, says Lueers. In addition to economic and business considerations, the industry now also requires a social license to operate.
“There’s a lot of focus now on sustainable development and safety. That didn’t happen when I was starting out in my career. But today, the communities we operate in expect it,” he says. “We need to continue to grow these principles [because] we recognize we do have an impact in the communities where we live and work.”