Meeting the challenge of the "cultural issues" involved in business development amidst expanding population and environmental concerns, Canadian producers are underwriting a neutral dispute resolution agency, Synergy Alberta, and have hired an executive from the Canadian Red Cross to head it up.
The recruitment of Edmonton, AB resident Gary Redmond as the first full-time chief of a fledgling industrial peacekeeping agency is a sign of the times. Redmond is no corporate executive, engineer or earth scientist. From killing fields in the former Yugoslavia to Pacific beach towns shattered by hurricanes, disaster was his forte for a decade. Alberta battlegrounds are the new mission of the professional relief worker, who rose to be national coordinator of disaster services for the Canadian Red Cross.
Now Redmond goes where industry, farmers, hobby ranchers, acreage owners, country recreation developers, environmentalists and suburban commuters butt heads. His assignment as executive director of Synergy Alberta takes him to every corner of Canada's chief gas-producing province, where producers are taking no chances on losing future access to resources. While Canadian drilling expenditures and programs are being restrained for the duration of soft prices, efforts to keep paths to development targets open are growing.
"There are no signs of oil and gas development activity slowing down," he said in an interview. "Population growth is also not slowing down. There are more and more community issues and conflicts over land use coming up."
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canadian Association of Petroleum Landmen and Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB) fund the new agency. But like the Red Cross, Synergy Alberta's mandate is to be neutral, able to work with all sides in conflicts and focus on helping communities help themselves. Redmond's main jobs are to coach local issues groups or associations of industry and community representatives, and to encourage more to form. A gradually expanding network has been spawned by accelerating development since the early 1990s.
Few of more than 60 organizations in his agency's directory, including about a dozen clustered in and around the Alberta capital of Edmonton, call themselves synergy groups. The associations, little known outside their neighborhoods and seldom news because they resolve disputes quietly rather than wage noisy conflict, have names that describe their roles.
Fort Air Partnership monitors atmospheric emissions by industry operations east of Edmonton in the Fort Saskatchewan area, for instance. Watelet Gas Plant Area Residents Group, based in St. Albert, deals with issues from traffic nuisances to health and safety hazards involved in drilling, production, pipelines and processing along Edmonton's western fringe.
Sundre Petroleum Operators Group, a leader of the movement, concentrates on the 30% of Alberta gas production which is "sour" or tainted with lethal hydrogen-sulphide. The network spans the province from the northwestern hotbed of gas development surrounding Grande Prairie to the industry's southeastern mainstay area of prolific shallow gas deposits around Medicine Hat.
The title synergy was bestowed by AEUB professionals in alternative dispute resolution techniques such as mediation. Alberta's oil and gas field watchdog board has for years encouraged groups to form. The approach saves time, money and grief for all concerned in industrial schemes by settling conflicts at best -- or at least narrowing down disputes to essentials and lowering emotional temperatures to a level where AEUB hearings on contested projects are civil and brief.
In keeping with the evolution of the loose confederation of grass-roots organizations, Synergy Alberta does not limit the network by trying to define exactly what a synergy group is. Redmond only describes the kind of outfit that does not fit the bill.
"If you're coming together just to fight a battle in court you're not a synergy group," he said.
Characteristics the organizations in the network have in common include representation of all sides, recognition of each other's rights, continuous consultation, and willingness to adapt. The name synergy is intended to describe results instead of an organizational standard. The goal is a process that produces more than the participants had when the process started.
An oil or gas development that passes synergy group muster ends up generating profits, local jobs, a well and pipeline layout acceptable to landowners, increased municipal tax revenues, a community benefit such as improved roads or a new sports arena, and new skills or an enhanced reputation for the company. The exercise is not a one-sided case of teaching Albertans to make room for industry. The latest development in Redmond's field works the other way by teaching companies to adapt to farm communities.
An alliance of Synergy Alberta, the Canadian Society of Unconventional Gas (coalbed methane developers), Alberta Agriculture, the AEUB, oil firms and landowner representatives last week unveiled an education program for industry.
Titled Understanding Agriculture, the package is being widely distributed. It includes formal presentations for executives, role-playing exercises for field personnel and a computer compact disc crammed with detailed information about the province's multiple varieties of agricultural operations.
Oil executives learn that farming, no less than the energy industry, is a risk-taking and expensive business prone to wide swings in prices fetched by its products. Industry field personnel learn practical lessons such as adapting company schedules to fit seasonal and daily rhythms of farming, including how they vary between regions and types of agriculture.
"You can't just show up and expect a farmer to drop everything so he can talk to you," Redmond said. "The first part of synergy is to treat each other with respect. A core aspect of a synergy group is to listen and learn on all sides."
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