So long, and thanks for all the beef

I have to say, it sure was nice of Calgary to put on such a fancy going-away party. A couple of free drinks and a Stampede cowboy hat would have been fine — the city didn’t have to go and invite all those 2,500 people from places like Norway and the Middle East. On the other hand, maybe some of them came for something else. I thanked a few foreign-looking gentlemen for coming to see me off, and they didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about.

As fate would have it, the end of the World Petroleum Congress just happens to coincide with my departure from Calgary, after almost four years of covering business in Western Canada. Although it was a bit of a washout if you were hoping for a big pepper-spray type of protest, this global event is as good a note as any to depart on — even after you strip away the hype, hosting a show like the WPC is a major coup for Calgary, and also a pat on the back for an increasingly international oil industry.

I can’t stick around for the Stampede, unfortunately, so I won’t be able to see who some of the new names are sponsoring in the chuckwagon races, a staple of corporate sponsorship. Over the past few years this became a game in which the contestants tried to guess whose company would still be around the following year, after all the usual takeovers and mergers. Hurricane Hydrocarbons and Fracmaster Canada are just two of the companies that seemed to go downhill as soon as their name went on the wagon.

Lots of other companies have faded into the sunset one way or another in the past few years: giant companies like Nova Corp., Conwest Exploration, Wascana Energy and Norcen Energy; medium-sized players such as Stampeder Explorations, CS Resources, Elan Energy, Morrison Petroleums and Amber Energy, as well as dozens of smaller firms. Others are either on their way out or doing their best to avoid being swallowed up, including firms such as Ranger Oil, Renaissance Energy and Gulf Canada Resources.

Many of the industry’s larger-than-life personalities have also departed. Anderson Exploration CEO J.C. Anderson is about the most colourful guy left in the oil patch, next to Scottish scrapper Bob Lamond, who keeps an eye on the scene from his stone castle in Mount Royal. Former Gulf Canada CEO and Texas gunslinger J.P. Bryan has been and gone, unable to get the industry to agree that $6 of debt for every dollar of cash flow is a good thing. The woman who helped resurrect Suncor, Dee Parkinson-Marcoux, has also moved on, as has Greg Noval of Canadian 88 Energy.

And yet, while many Alberta companies have been gobbled up by U.S. giants, others are becoming giants themselves. Take Murray Edwards: Yesterday’s $1-billion bid for Ranger by Canadian Natural Resources makes it obvious that he plans to continue expanding his empire. In the past year or so, Canadian Natural has spent about $2.5-billion buying assets from various companies, and is on its way to being a major force — despite the fact that, if they saw a picture of him, 90 per cent of Calgarians would think Mr. Edwards was the guy who bags their groceries at Safeway.

Alberta Energy CEO Gwyn Morgan is no slouch in the corporate acquisition game either, having pushed the former provincial Crown corporation to the forefront of the natural gas business both nationally and internationally, and Jim Buckee has turned Talisman Energy into another major international player. Suncor has also become an industry stalwart, thanks to CEO Rick George and his drive to make the oil sands game more efficient — his example has helped convince others the oil sands can be a good business.

The oil and gas industry got ignored to some extent over the past couple of years, a result of low oil prices and a frenzy of interest in technology and Internet stocks, but there is still plenty of action to be had. Oil prices are higher than they have been in almost 30 years, and no one is too sure where they will stop, or when — and Alberta natural gas prices are higher than they have been since the industry was deregulated 15 years ago, helping to drive offshore development and convincing dozens of companies to take another look at the resources of the far North.

I may be leaving Calgary, but I hope to continue writing about those kinds of issues and ideas — and lots of others as well — in my new job: writing for The Globe and Mail’s new real-time Web site at . And if you happen to be coming East some time, bring me a steak and a bag of those mini-doughnuts from the midway at Stampede Park.