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‘Olympics of oil and gas’ to kick off in Calgary amid growing climate scrutiny

Beginning Sunday, thousands of delegates from around the world will converge on Calgary for the World Petroleum Congress, a five-day industry conference that promises to explore the energy transition. But as they gather together to discuss the future of the sector, they'll do so under growing climate scrutiny and concern.

World Petroleum Congress returns to Calgary after 2 decades with focus on 'path to net-zero'

Four men sit in chairs on a stage coloured in purple. On screen behind them is a projection that reads, 23rd World Petroleum Congress.

On the heels of a summer in which heat records were smashed in North America and Europe, thousands of oil and gas industry executives, government officials and media representatives from around the world will converge on Calgary for the World Petroleum Congress.

As they gather for the five-day conference to discuss the future of the sector, they'll do so under growing climate scrutiny and concern. Their conference is themed with that in mind, titled Energy Transition: The Path to Net Zero.

"We've heard a lot of plans and a lot of rhetoric. There's a lot of both floating around out there. So what I'm really looking for is more clarity on the plans," said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Around 5,000 delegates from more than 100 countries are expected to attend the conference, which begins Sunday and runs until Thursday.

Conference includes high-profile officials

The event will see various high-profile officials in attendance, including Saudi Arabia Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud, Canadian Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, among others.

A number of heads of prominent oil and gas firms will also be present at the event, including ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, Repsol CEO Josu Jon Imaz and Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser.

The conference was previously hosted in 2000 in Calgary, when 1,000 protestors marched downtown, voicing environmental and human rights concerns. This year's event will make the city one of only four in the world that have hosted the conference twice, the other three being Moscow, Houston and London.

A man speaks on stage.

Calgary officials say they expect that the event will generate approximately $88 million of economic value to the city.

Beyond the delegates, it's also expected that the event will draw 15,000 unique visitors to the actual site, something that could represent a boost to the economy not long after the Calgary Stampede, according to Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

"The hotels are full, restaurants will be busy, the airport is going to be very busy. I think there's small businesses that will benefit as well. So this is a big lift to the economy," Yedlin said.

Discussion centred around net-zero plans

Calgary was narrowly selected for the event against four other bidders. Richard Masson, who worked on the bid, said the event is the culmination of multiple years of work.

"It's super complicated, there's no question about it," said Masson, who is chair of the World Petroleum Council in Canada.

This year's net-zero theme was Calgary's pitch to member countries in 2019. The event will revolve around industry perspectives tied to the challenges of the energy transition, according to Masson.

"This is a big challenge: 30 years of hard work, at least, to get to something approaching net-zero by 2050. But, you know, people are focused on it, their investors are focused on it, their regulators, their governments, other stakeholders are all focused on it," Masson said. "So that's what we're going to be talking about."

A man with short hair is pictured on a golf course. He looks past the camera.

Today, the team organizing the conference numbers around 150, with the majority of them being volunteers, according to Masson.

"They call it the Olympics of oil and gas conferences," Masson said. "It's a big deal, and a lot of pressure to deliver once you've won the bid."

Companies will be under scrutiny: Mabee

An interesting point to watch coming out of the conference will be how the oil and gas industry strikes a balance between short-term opportunities and the need to make a long-term transition, according to Mabee, the director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University.

"The truth of the matter is that the entire world is moving away from some of those traditional uses for oil and gas … the companies that understand that and are trying to get ahead of it, I think are the ones that have a lot to gain," he said, adding that he thinks there will be a lot of scrutiny on this meeting.

"Will this be just another session of talk? We've talked about sustainability, we've talked about the climate emergency, at other congresses and other meetings. We don't always see the level of action that I think people want to see."

In total, the global industry's profits last year reached about $4 trillion US, according to the International Energy Agency, compared with an average of $1.5 trillion in recent years.

Green energy advocates have called on oil companies to invest more in cutting emissions. Earlier this year, John Kerry, the special presidential envoy on climate for the U.S., urged the oilpatch to not cry poor when it comes to the environment.

Others stress that even if the oil sector drastically cuts emissions released during production, those efforts don't address the impact of downstream fossil fuel combustion, like when cars consume gasoline.

A man wearing a suit jacket stands with his arms folded and looks at the camera.

Dan Wilson, director of the extractive resource governance program in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, said he will be watching for discourse around net-zero that involves clear, well-defined, scientifically supported programs that are also economically feasible.

"Hopefully, the magical thinking on each ends of the spectrum are a bit diminished, and there's a greater connectivity and a greater consensus around what is achievable, and what is a realistic path forward," he said.

Wilson agreed the stakes would be high coming out of the conference, adding it's clear to him that the future involves decarbonization and transition — and the question is how big of a role Alberta and democratic countries like Canada will play in that transition.

One of the most high-profile efforts in the oilpatch to reduce emissions is the Pathways Alliance, a consortium of six companies representing 95 per cent of oilsands production, which has the stated aim of working toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Kendall Dilling, president of Pathways, said the conference is a huge stage for industry to demonstrate its advances in technologies geared toward addressing climate challenges. He said he understands criticisms industry isn't moving quickly enough, despite what he said will become billions in investment moving forward.

"But you can't accelerate that beyond a certain point. We still don't have regulatory approvals for many of these projects. We have to go through Indigenous consultation, and make sure their concerns are addressed, and that they're brought in as partners on the front end," Dilling said.

"We're really working, doing everything we humanly can to keep the projects on track for 2030 … but yeah, make no mistake about it. We've got hundreds of people and putting all kinds of resources to advance these projects as we speak."

The Pathways Alliance's plan to build a 400-kilometre pipeline that would transport carbon from more than 20 oilsands facilities to an underground hub near Cold Lake for safe underground storage is a centrepiece of their plan to hit net-zero by 2050.

Plan for security

With high-profile dignitaries and hundreds of media representatives expected to attend the event, the Calgary Police Service, Alberta RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have all been engaged to ensure security, according to Masson.

In 2000, in response to the 1,000 protestors, the city deployed riot police with pepper spray, stun guns and riot gear, cognizant of avoiding violent clashes such as those that took place in Seattle during meetings of the World Trade Organization in 1999.

Critics at the time said police were overreacting. Christine Silverberg, Calgary's chief of police in 2000, defended the final price tag of around $2 million, saying it figured to be less than the impacts of potential property damage.

Protesters yell at police from behind a barricade.

Organizers are watching for the potential of large-scale demonstrations again this year, but some environmental groups say they aren't as interested in playing a part like they were in 2000.

"The World Petroleum Congress really is a bit of an anachronism. Now, it's a bunch of executives meeting … to claim they're still relevant in a world that's rapidly moving to renewable energy," said Keith Stewart, a spokesperson with Greenpeace Canada.

While Stewart expects local members may protest outside the event, he said the national organization is focused on a series of global marches against fossil fuels, scheduled around the same time.

No one with Calgary police was available for an interview by publication time. In a statement, CPS said it respects the rights of everyone to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while also recognizing the rights of the public, residents and businesses to a safe environment.

"Our objective is to work with all parties to ensure public and officer safety and to maintain orderly conduct and peace," a CPS spokesperson wrote in a statement. "We police behaviour, not beliefs."

The City of Calgary has allocated a one-time budget of $11.625 million to support the event, 80 per cent of which is going toward safety and security, officials say. The remaining 20 per cent will support city services such as transit, parking, lane parking and tourism programming.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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