Oil and Natural Gas: Upstream

Upstream – First Phase

Upstream refers to the first phase of the industry.

This is when oil and natural gas are found and extracted – both on and offshore. It includes everything from shooting seismic, drilling wells, pumping oil, trucking supplies and recovering natural gas to mining the oil sands, and more.

Exploration and Production (E&P)

The exploration and production sub-sector focuses on identifying the underground rock formations that may contain oil or natural gas and negotiating with landowners to get access to the land for drilling.

If negotiations are successful, a series of complex field operations activities begin – executed by a large, specialized and skilled workforce. E&P companies contract seismic companies to conduct further geophysical exploration to obtain more reliable information than the initial exploration. When sites are determined, companies drill exploration wells and once oil or natural gas are found, drill to bring the resource to the surface. Exploration involves specialized methods, services, products, maintenance, completion, production, supply and logistical support. The work is done economically, safely and in line with environmental regulations.

New technologies have been developed in recent years to make the production of oil and natural gas from hard-to-reach reserves much more viable. The widespread use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have unlocked crude oil and natural gas from shale and tight reservoirs.

Who works in E&P? E&P companies employ thousands of skilled workers ranging from negotiators, geologists, technologists and administrative assistant to accountants, engineers, safety managers and environmental specialists.

Here are a few examples of E&P opportunities:

Oil Sands

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. Bitumen is a heavy oil that must be converted to crude oil before refineries can produce gasoline and other petroleum products. Alberta’s oil sands region is home to about 97% of Canada’s total crude oil reserves. There are oil sands in the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake regions – which means there are job opportunities there, too.

Close to 80% of oil sands reserves are located too far below the surface for mining, so oil is produced in situ. In situ, which means ‘in place’, involves producing bitumen from oil sands by drilling wells using specialized extraction techniques.

Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) is the most common method for extracting bitumen. SAGD uses two horizontal wellbores: steam is injected into the upper wellbore and softened bitumen is pumped to the surface from the lower wellbore.

Oil sands recovery requires many workers in a variety of roles, including engineers, technicians, Indigenous relations advisors, procurement coordinators and health and safety advisors.

Oil sands opportunities include:


Offshore activity in Canada explores oil and natural gas in oceans or other large bodies of water with impressive rigs that can reach thousands of metres beneath the seafloor. The offshore industry in Canada is primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, where efforts are challenged by ice, wind and waves. Working on these rigs demands not only technical skills, but also stamina and a commitment to live and work in a challenging environment.

Offshore projects are complex, requiring many specialized vessels to support operations at sea. These include large oil shuttle tankers, floating drilling/production platforms, floating production storage and offloading vessels, tugboats, drill ships, fireboats and supply vessels and subsea facilities.

Offshore wells are impressive rigs. In fact, they can reach thousands of metres below the seafloor and demand not only technical skills used onshore, but also stamina, balance and the commitment to work in a challenging environment.

If you’re interested in offshore, they often hire engineers, cadets and offshore marine specialists as well as support in environment, health and safety, finance, procurement and administration.

Here are a few examples of offshore opportunities:

Oil and Natural Gas Services

There’s a lot of upstream work in oil and natural gas. The oil and natural gas services sub-sector supports the upstream oil and natural gas industry during all phases of exploration and production, including drilling, testing, completing, maintaining and reclaiming oil and natural gas wells. Service companies provide a number of activities, products and services that are critical to the integrity and safety of oil and natural gas operations.

Oil and natural gas services is the largest sub-sector in the oil and natural gas industry in terms of employment, employing thousands of workers across Canada. Many of these jobs are in the field, require manual work with specialized technology and are the starting point for a career in the energy industry.

Here are a few examples of oil and natural gas services opportunities: