There’s a lot of value in bringing people together to share information about energy development in the area. Everyone here plays a different role, but oftentimes, the information impacts all parties.Rick Anderson, Rimbey Regional Synergy Group Facilitator
For the residents of one Alberta town, the mouth-watering aroma of meat on the grill and baked beans enticed many to escape the hot spring weather.
On this blazing June day, nearly 80 people trickled into a large community centre just off the main road. While some waited for their burgers to arrive, others sauntered past 16 booths along the walls. Residents stopped to ask questions and put a face to a name; others snatched up giveaways and brochures. Conversations were comfortable—everyone understood why each other was there.
This evening wasn’t just about the food, nor was it your typical community barbecue. This was the annual Rimbey Regional Synergy Group (RRSG) open house.
“We’re all here for the same reason: to try and find solutions where solutions are needed,” explains Rick Anderson, group facilitator.
Running for more than 10 years, the RRSG barbecue and open house brings landowners, community residents, energy companies, businesses, municipalities, and energy regulators together under the same roof. Anderson has facilitated this event for the past three years.
“There’s a lot of value in bringing people together to share information about energy development in the area,” he adds. “Everyone here plays a different role, but oftentimes, the information impacts all parties.”
A Desire to Build Trust
This year’s event focused on water well management and the oil and gas industry; it was complete with presentations from four organizations, including the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). Given that oil and gas development can be a contentious topic, one might expect a tense atmosphere. But synergy groups across Alberta were formed out of a desire to build trusting and transparent relationships between communities and energy companies.
“On any side of the conversation, these are real people with personalities, real issues, concerns, and ideas,” Anderson observes. “When relationships are made, people are more likely to discuss the tough issues in a respectful manner.”
The organizations in the room continue to attend the open house for similar reasons. For Behn Morris, engagement specialist at the AER, the human element is what draws him back.
“When you speak face to face with someone, it emphasizes an accountability we have as the regulator that often isn’t palpable when you’re sending an email or speaking with someone over the phone,” explains Morris. “Even if an issue is outside of the AER’s scope, I will try to point them in the right direction, to someone who can help.”
In the Beginning
Rimbey’s relationships with other energy players didn’t develop overnight. In the early 1990s, a local group known as the Rimbey and District Clean Air People raised concerns about air quality in the area, which they attributed to nearby flaring and plant emissions. A combination of public awareness, improved regulations and technology, and determination put those concerns to rest.
As industry activity near Rimbey continued to grow, another group of landowners formed. The Rimbey and District Stakeholder Group didn’t just want to voice their concerns—they wanted to be a part of the decision. They successfully pushed to sit at the table with energy companies.
And while its identity continued to evolve, in 2013, the group was renamed the RRSG. People from all sides now search for collaborative solutions together through meaningful dialogue and regular check-ins. In addition to the annual information night and barbecue, members meet bimonthly to discuss updates on industry activity, regulations, and impacts on the community.
Anderson notes that residents’ concerns have varied over the years—from water use and consumption, to noise, to road use and heavy traffic. Today, major issues are rare; keeping everyone informed and shared participation are the RRSG’s key drivers.
Keeping a Pulse
Back at the open house, presentations on water well management and landowner rights had come to a close. Anderson opened the floor for questions.
But the room was silent.
“Every meeting is a litmus test,” says Morris, when asked why this was the case. “Sometimes the community brings forward concerns that we’re expecting. Other times, there are fewer concerns than we anticipate. Either way, it helps us better understand what’s important to our stakeholders.”
Indeed, synergy groups across the province help organizations keep a pulse on what matters to those who live and work near oil and gas activity. Morris says the AER makes a point of attending the RRSG’s events throughout the year, in addition to those of other synergy groups.
“We want to have an avenue where we can sit with everyone in the same room. It’s important to have these conversations, and listen attentively to better understand what’s important to them.”