Stephen Ewart, Calgary Herald
The journey from the last World Petroleum Congress in Beijing to the Jubilee Auditorium today started out amid twists and turns of the Great Wall of China. The contingent of Calgarians on the trek that day couldn't have realized it was just a warm-up.
But after three years of ups and downs -- from the pinballing price of oil to concerns about construction of a new convention centre and, lately, fears of civil unrest -- the once-in-a-lifetime gathering of the oil industry elite in Calgary has arrived.
"We had a few anxious moments along the way but everybody is really pleased at how well it has all come together," says WPC Calgary chairman Jim Gray, a local oilman brought in two years ago to raise the funds to pay for the congress just as oil prices skidded to the bottom of the barrel.
For the those unaware, the WPC is the pre-eminent gathering of petroleum industry powerbrokers. It dates to 1933 and was traditionally dedicated to an exchange of technical papers on how best to find and produce the world's most important commodity.
It is not an OPEC meeting. There are no policies set on global oil production that can send the price shooting off in one direction or the other. Nor is it an investment symposium. Don't expect to hear announcements of billion-dollar corporate takeovers.
"It's a gathering of the best intellectual capital in the industry," says PanCanadian Petroleum executive Gerry Protti, a Calgary organizer.
On Saturday, Calgary police were putting finishing touches on security measures for the congress. Early in the day the police command centre was activated and tested to make sure it was ready for any event. It's hooked in to all the city departments that could be affected by rowdy protests including: transit, streets and emergency medical services.
The only other preparation under way the day before the congress kickoff was the implementation of the no-go zone which is a secure area that will surround delegates. Both areas are restricted to authorized people only.
Stooke is encouraging all Calgarians to avoid 10th Street N.W. between 4th and 16th Avenues after lunchtime Sunday as it will be cordoned off to allow delegates to attend the opening ceremonies.
The Calgarians wanted to make the WPC more relevant to the industry -- which meant butting heads with a few traditionalists along the way -- and they worked to ensure the conference had a business focus and dealt with issues such as environment, financing and management.
Thomas Stauffer, the respected Washington-based oil industry consultant, has attended congresses in the past and says that while they attract large delegations from lots of countries they have not been a dynamic force in the industry.
"The World Petroleum Congress is such a great big circus, but it's never been interesting," says Stauffer, a former adviser to U.S. presidents on energy policy. "The WPC is just a zoo but . . . it's probably good for networking."
Indeed, networking is the buzz word around this WPC.
Ray Cej, the co-chairman of the Calgary WPC and a driving force in bringing a vibrant business sense to a traditionally staid event, says the ability to speak face to face with someone is still critical in an era when global communication is instant.
"Personal contact goes a long way in any business," Cej says.
The mandate for the Congress -- with its 2,500-plus delegates from 85 countries -- is to take a broad look at the big-picture issues facing the industry in a series of lectures, discussions, seminars and exchanges of scientific papers.
"I don't expect that a lot business per se will get done over course of the four or five days," Cej adds. "I do expect it will become a catalyst for future business."
Even the speakers list, which includes BP Amoco chief executive Sir John Browne, Saudi Prince Faisal and Rilwanu Lukman, secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was designed to attract the right delegate.
Some business will get done over this week, but those announcements will tend to come from the National Petroleum Show, a giant industry shopping mall set up on the Stampede Grounds. Forecasts run as high as $10 billion in deals at the show, but most of that money will change hands long after the exhibits are packed up. With the current sky-high prices for oil and natural gas, delegates to both events have money to spend if they choose.
Eighteen months ago it wasn't the same story.
Just when Gray and others were heading out to collect their half of the $10-million cost of staging the event, the price of oil stubbornly clung to levels so low energy companies were disappearing from the corporate Calgary map.
As prices recovered so did the spirits around the WPC.
Today, with buoyant oil and natural gas prices and local companies making big waves internationally, the energy world meets in Calgary at just about the most dynamic time in the history of the Canadian petroleum industry.
Consider the state of Canada's world-class prospects:
Indeed, the real Calgary Stampede in recent years has been by American oil companies moving north to get a piece of the action.
Despite the sunny outlook, however, it has been the spectre of demonstrations that has recently hung over the congress like a cloud.
The organizers of the Calgary WPC are clearly concerned that "the noise outside," as Cej calls it, could turn the conference, on which they have worked for so long, into a side show as protests against the industry take centre stage for the media.
Randy Gossen, an executive at Canadian Occidental Petroleum, and the leader of the program committee for Calgary, has made it a mission to move the focus of the congress to deal with many of the same issues the protesters are raising. More than 25 per cent of the schedule in Calgary is devoted to social and environmental issues.
"That's the irony," Gossen says. "We're concerned about the very same issues."