By CODY MUDGE
There’s a long whirring hiss, a sharp click and then a windy exhalation. The plastic crinkles with each swing of the arm and the thud of heavy boots striking the floor echoes off of the hallway walls. For a moment it looks like they’re getting ready for a spacewalk, treading carefully in their suits, in line and file, making their way to the airlock where Dave Farrish is waiting for them. All the while the whir, hiss and click create a cacophony of reverberating rhythms as the small group of students make their way outside into the windy cold.
“Gather round,” Farrish tells his students, all of whom are clad in “moonsuits,” big grey plastic body suits with a large visor to see through and holes at the end of the arms and legs for gloves and boots. The suits make the students look like a pre-space age astronaut from a cheesy science-fiction film. The small group huddles around him, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, respirators clasped onto their faces. “I’m going to zip you up and then we’re going to go outside. Within about five minutes your visor is going to fog up and I’ll unzip you but it will give you an idea of what your vision will be like. If at any point you need out of your suit, put both hands on your head and I’ll get to you,” he says.
When they’ve managed to trundle outside they toss around an orange foam football and a reflective Frisbee. Most of the initial tosses miss their mark as the group becomes acclimated to the cumbersome suits and the lack of dexterity their gloves force on them. Farrish smiles as they stumble around, their cone of vision reducing with every minute. There isn’t a toxic spill or a leaking gas line today, instead they’re able to enjoy their time getting used to one of the most important tools of their trade.
Farrish is the program co-ordinator for the environmental engineering applications post-graduate program at Conestoga College’s Cambridge campus. His students undergo HAZMAT-style training alongside courses that teach them about waste management, environment legislation, field sampling and hydro geology (a form of geology devoted to the movement and distribution of groundwater).
“The (moonsuit) training is for those who work in the handling and cleanup of chemical spills or leaking underground storage tanks, as well as in the sampling of soil and groundwater at contaminated industrial sites,” Farrish said.
The environmental engineering program, and many others like it, are filled with students seeking to join the growing environmental and renewable energy sector in Canada. The economic recession years have been hard on this country, not as debilitating as in other areas of the world, but significant enough to have made strengthening the floundering economy a priority for the last half decade. So while combating climate change is crucial, in the words of President Barack Obama, “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” exploitation of natural resources, like Alberta’s oil sands, have been justified to assuage the fickle deity known as the economy.
And the economic argument for projects like the oil sands are strong, as long as one ignores anything beyond the next 25 years, and young people entering post-secondary education would be remiss not to notice the job potential of the industry. Hundreds of billions in revenue will be made in the next few decades if extraction continues at a strong pace and that means steady employment for the over 22,000 already employed by the oil sands project.
Farrish’s students, those in the energy systems engineering program at the Cambridge campus, and those studying environmental sciences at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, have identified a markedly different field, yet one that appears to be outpacing even the rampant oil sands industry.
Canadian environmental think-tank Clean Energy Canada released a report late last year entitled, “Tracking the Energy Revolution.” In the report, Clean Energy Canada suggests that the renewable energy sector has actually outpaced the oil sands in this country. This opens up an incredible wealth of opportunities for students like those in Farrish’s class, who seem to have an industry at their fingertips that has barely scratched the surface of its economic potential.
While this growth is a noted improvement for the country, which boasted a paltry clean energy sector only five years ago, some artificial growth may be needed to assist Canada in reaching its environmental goals. This push comes from growing interest in the field but also from government funding and tax incentives to investors and companies. Outside of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, very little has been done by governmental bodies to encourage growth in the clean energy sector. If this changes and public funding joins the hundreds of millions of private investment, the industry is primed to explode.
Even then, the energy sector is just a small part of Canada’s massive environmental industry, approximately 18 per cent according to Industry Canada. Other significant areas include water supply treatment and conservation, waste management and air pollution control, essentially the focus of Farrish’s program.
Before the students were completely fogged up in their moonsuits, the group gathered around as the piercing wind undoubtedly cut through their suits with the precision of a surgeon. Their hiss-click parade had drawn the attention of a few students standing by windows inside the campus and a small group of smokers clustered by the door who stood watching these alien figures perform a perplexing huddle.
“Don’t expect to be put in a situation like this very often,” Farrish said, referring to the harsh chill of the January day and the bright midday sun reflecting off of the snow-covered surroundings, “but today will give you a good idea of the limits of your equipment and I can’t understate the value of that. Alright, let’s have some fun!”
With that, the next generation of Canadian environmental engineers played football with respirators and moonsuits.