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McGill engineers tackle sustainable energy

Engineering Career Centre subsidized student networking trips to Calgary

Last September, Total E&P Canada Ltd (TEP), a division of the multinational oil company Total SA, gave a gift of $100,000 to the newly founded McGill Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (ISEAD).

ISEAD hasn’t officially launched, but has been sponsoring speakers and has provided a few undergraduate scholarships and fellowships. According to McGill Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Geza Joos, the newly appointed director of ISEAD, the institute will attempt to “make students sensitive to the whole issue of sustainability in engineering and design.”

The gift was donated after Jean-Michel Gires, CEO of TEP, gave an ISEAD-sponsored presentation in September titled “The Sustainability of the Tar Sands.” TEP has recently been the target of scrutiny by environmental groups including Sierra Club Canada after being approved to build Alberta’s ninth oil sands mine in Joslyn North.

Andrew Kirk, associate dean of Research and Graduate Education in the Faculty of Engineering, said that the money will be used to “support graduate and undergraduate fellowships and scholarships for projects of ‘general sustainability.’”

Kirk, the previous head of ISEAD, continued, saying, “The rest of money is going in to support the speaker series.”

Alex Briggs, an activist with Climate Justice Montreal and U2 Mechanical Engineering student, reflected on Gires’s presentation.

“The tar sands are the only thing that are sustainable to our society, because they are the only source of oil that is acceptable to the current world order. But that’s not the definition of sustainability that most people would identify with,” said Briggs.

“Anything that makes people more self-sufficient loses Total business, so they have a conflict of interest in making the world a more sustainable place,” he added.

When asked how Gires’s presentation fit into ISEAD’s sustainability mandate, Joos replied: “I don’t want to comment on Total’s commitment to sustainability, because it is not our purpose as an institute to make any comments either way.”

Briggs defined a sustainable system as one “where all negative effects that your life imposes on the world are balanced by positive effects at the same time.”

ISEAD, however, is keeping its definition of sustainability more fluid.

“We will accept the notion of sustainability that is offered to us, to the extent that there is an effort made to make it ‘sustainable,’ not necessarily sustainable indefinitely, but more sustainable, less destructive,” Joos said.

The institute will focus purely on the engineering and design aspects of sustainability, without providing a forum for talking about the societal aspects of sustainability.

“We are just focused on anything that is associated with engineering, urban planning, and architecture. We try to stay away from environmental issues that are covered by the McGill School of Environment, Law, Social Work, Psychology. These are essentially secondary issues,” said Joos.

“The institute itself will not take a position related to First Nations, Hydro-Québec, dams, et cetera. Those are more environmental type issues, social justice type issues,” he added.

As a new institute, ISEAD is still searching for a consistent mandate. Joos replaced Kirk as director on June 1, 2010.

ISEAD is currently focusing on seven key research and teaching themes, including sustainable manufacturing, design and construction of the built environment, and greenhouse gas capture and storage.

Joos explained one of the rationales behind researching greenhouse gas capturing.

“It is one of the solutions to keep on using coal. …At the moment, coal is by far the cheapest energy resource,” he said.

Kirk differed with Joos on this research direction: “Just because someone is doing research on something, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a good idea. There is an argument against this, in that if we build carbon sequestration systems, are we just giving high carbon fuels just a bit longer to run?”

Joos also confirmed that the research would not look at the effects of carbon capturing on the environment.

“The research at the moment is how to do it using the minimum amount of energy, how to extract the carbon dioxide,” he said.

Kirk questioned the commitment to making carbon fuels more sustainable, given rapidly depleting carbon fuel resources.

“I’m afraid that if we look at the Chinese economy and the Indian economy and look at how much coal they have available to them, I’m pretty convinced all that coal is going to get burned at some point. I think we need technology to capture it, unless we come up with a sufficiently low-cost form of energy. There isn’t really anything in the next ten years, as far as I see it, that’s going to cut it,” said Kirk.

Gires first came to McGill in March, when he gave a similar presentation at the “Engineers in Action” speakers series, put on by McGill’s Engineering Student Centre.

Engineering student services have a history of promoting oil and gas companies who operate in the tar sands. Last month, the Engineering Career Centre subsidized a group of students to visit Calgary to network with a number of these companies, including Imperial Oil, Shell, Syncrude, Suncor, and Total SA.

Darlene Hnatchuck, industry liaison for the Engineering Career Centre and organizer of this subsidized trip – named “Energy Tour” – was asked whether she vetted the companies that were asking students to come work for them.

“If we were to vet all of the companies, it would take us down a very slippery slope in terms of making decisions for adults,” she said. “So we don’t vet companies.”

Hnatchuck added, “we don’t have one focus, we are not tied to any one particular industry, because it is important to get McGill Engineering graduates to all industries if we want them to make a difference.”

The next speaker in the ISEAD speaker series is Pierre Duhaime, CEO of Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, one of the ten largest engineering firms in the world. SNC-Lavalin has also recently been the subject of activist scrutiny, after engineering the G20 security fences in downtown Toronto, and providing 300 to 500  million bullets for the U.S. military after the ‘shock and awe’ attacks on Iraq in 2004. Duhaime will be at McGill on February 14.