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CALGARY — It was, in many ways, the signing of a corporate peace treaty. On March 1, 2012, the heads of 12 of the largest energy companies in Canada sat on a downtown Calgary stage and agreed to a legal détente. No longer would they fight each other in court over patents or intellectual property on matters related to the environmental performance in the Fort McMurray area.
Instead, they would agree to work hand-in-hand on ways to make the oil sands cleaner and greener. It was, they said, quite likely the most important collaboration agreement between competitors in any industry, anywhere. It may be their single best chance to beat back a sea of criticism that threatens the very existence of their industry.
What got less mention was that the splashy signing ceremony – complete with a big-screen live-video feed of each executive signing documents – had settled little of the big issues. And no one mentioned that the months ahead would be filled with painful meetings, with a dozen companies each sending legal teams for multiple weekly meetings to sort out how, precisely, they would establish a détente that went against the instinct of most people in the room. Nor did they predict that nearly a year later, some of the thorniest questions confronting the oil sands would remain unresolved, like how high the industry should aim its ambitions to prune its dirtiest excesses.
Yet behind the scenes, the man tasked with quietly making progress – a man who arguably has one of the most delicate jobs in all of Calgary – said he is surprised at what Big Oil is accomplishing.
“In the old paradigm, people probably would have said that what we were trying to do on the timelines we were trying to do – it can’t be done,” said Dan Wicklum, the former CFL linebacker who is chief executive officer of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), a kind of consortium of co-operation in which 14 oil sands companies have agreed to work together on environmental improvement. “Given the new paradigm of COSIA and collaboration, I think we’re probably even surprising ourselves on how quickly we’re being able to progress this.”
They have succeeded in creating a legal structure – hardly a simple task. But they’re fighting against a broader corporate culture. A recent survey by General Electric Co. placed Canada among the top countries in corporate desire to collaborate – but at the bottom of 25 surveyed countries in executive willingness “to share the resulting risks and rewards.”
COSIA finds itself caught between those impulses. It has been 10 months since COSIA was formally unveiled – and even late into last fall, it remained very much a work in progress: In the organization’s new downtown office, rows of chairs were stacked against a wall of windows, awaiting the boardroom table they would one day surround.
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