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British Consul-General Tony Kay after being "white hatted" by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi at the mayor's office. (Larry MacDougal)
British Consul-General Tony Kay after being "white hatted" by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi at the mayor's office. (Larry MacDougal)

Oil-rich Calgary a magnet for consulates Add to ...

The British government dispatched diplomat Tony Kay from the blistering sun of Oman to a promising emerging market. Then he needed a cowboy hat.

His first week as Britain’s first-ever consul-general in Calgary was packed with meetings with Alberta cabinet ministers, Shell and BP executives, and Mayor Naheed Nenshi. And Stampede starts next week, so on Thursday the 40-year-old Liverpudlian, last posted in Muscat, was getting ready. “I’ve got the boots, in fact I’ve got two pair,” he said. “But I haven’t got the hat yet.” Luckily, Mr. Nenshi gave him one.

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The fact that he’s even in Calgary is part of a surprising trend. Britain and other Western countries are slashing foreign-service budgets and closing consulates. When they open one, it’s not in North America or Europe, but emerging markets like China or India. Calgary is the exception.

Britain expanded its Calgary trade office to a full consulate-general this week. France opened a consulate last year. The United States, cutting elsewhere, brought in a few more diplomats. China’s 14-year-old consulate now has 16 staff. In 2005, Japan moved its big consulate-general from Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, to the oil-business centre Calgary.

They’re there because of money, and opportunity. The oil sands offer foreign companies a rare chance to buy, and own, a chunk of massive oil reserves. Alberta wealth means business. But they also know Canada’s economic and political centre is shifting west. The oil sands, and their environmental impact, can be hot politics back home. And pipeline plans could affect energy security of Asian countries and the United States.

The diplomats insist they’re not rivals, though China’s moves into the oil sands have raised eyebrows. Officially, the United States isn’t worried that proposed pipelines to B.C. would allow Alberta oil, now exclusively exported to the United States, to go to China. But a diplomat from another country noted privately that they’d keep an eye out for things like a Chinese oil company making a deal that allows it to reserve oil for China, rather than global markets.

Before the arrival of Mr. Kay, Britain’s consul-general in Vancouver, Alex Budden, travelled to Alberta twice a month, but even with four local Calgary staff, he felt there was much more to do. The British government decided it needed diplomats, speaking for the government, in Calgary.

“The economic engine of Canada is increasingly in the West. With that comes political influence and a resurgence of those provincial governments,” Mr. Budden said earlier this year. “A lot of our officers are going into developing, emerging markets – Brazil, China, these sorts of places. But Alberta is a very emerging market within Canada.… That’s very much the reason why we are putting staff in there.”

France used to place its Canadian consulates in the biggest cities, or francophone ones, but diplomat Jean-Charles Bou opened one in Calgary in 2011. French oil giant Total plans to expand to 1,200 employees in four years. Affluence is drawing French bakers, pastry chefs and entrepreneurs. Mr. Bou’s goal is to raise France’s profile: “It’s the Canada of the 21st century. So it’s important to be here.”

Others have different interests. Japanese Consul-General Susumu Fukuda has expats and trade, but more: His country relies on imported liquid natural gas, but Asian exporters are increasingly consuming their own supply. Japans needs new sources. He follows gas-pipeline projects to Canada’s West Coast. “We are watching,” he said.

The United States long had this diplomatic turf to itself. Its consulate opened in 1906 after American homesteaders rushed in. Calgary still has 80,000 U.S. citizens. And outgoing Consul-General Laura Lochman’s July 4 party is a hot ticket. Aside from passports and visas, and promoting investment and burgeoning trade, the key job is providing energy intelligence to Washington – prospects for production, technology, and Alberta and Ottawa’s plans to regulate.

“We try to get ahead of the curve,” Ms. Lochman said. “All of this stems from our energy security interests. And Alberta being our No. 1 foreign supplier, you can imagine we’re interested in most things related to the energy sector here, and in parallel, the environment.” The oil sands are hot politics in Washington. The diplomats follow technology or regulation that might affect emissions because the U.S. wants to ensure its energy supply doesn’t one day hit a wall of opposition. “We want to be able to continue to import the resource,” she said.

Now there are other big players. Chinese Consul-General Liu Yongfeng is striking a higher profile than predecessors, and Chinese state oil companies have bought oil sands projects. But she knows some view China’s presence warily. “Some are even suspicious that China wants to control Canada’s energy,” she said. She tries to refute those suspicions – noting that Chinese companies are investing now even though none of the oil flows to China yet. But she noted that business executives tell her they want “more and more” Chinese investment.

“The importance of Alberta, in terms of energy and economy, is a reason for not just China but other countries to send representatives here,” she said.

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