Nestled among rolling green hills in southeastern Korea, the city of Daegu is said to have a population of 2.5 million people. But given the lack of decent hotel rooms, restaurants, bars or Big City buzz in general, many of the 7,000 delegates attending the 22nd Word Energy Congress there last week wouldn’t have been surprised to hear it was a town one-tenth that size.
The political and financial whys and wherefores of how cities come to host the triennial WEC make the Olympic city selection process look like a Norwegian election campaign. But suffice to say, Daegu is not an ideal venue for a huge, international conference and trade show.
The four-day conference takes place every three years–the last was held in Montreal–and is hosted by the World Energy Council, a 90-year old apolitical forum made up of 3,000 member organizations from more than 90 countries.
Few were surprised when Russian energy tsar–and keynote speaker–Igor Sechin changed his plans at the last minute, necessitating frantic improvisation by the organizing committee; or that delegates from poorer nations were loading up on freebies in the exhibition hall, or that the coffee was bad.
But it was something of a shock to discover that the third largest city in the country that has given us smartphones, flat-screen HD TVs and Gangnam Style offers few if any western conveniences.
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Many of the scheduled ministers didn’t turn up. But those that did were often chatty, notably Iraq’s deputy prime minister Hussain al-Shahristani who said the Shell- led Majnoon field could be producing 220,000 b/d by the end of the year, and that China wants to import up to 1 million barrels per day Iraqi crude in 2014, double current volumes. Shahristani also said a gas pipeline being built to import Iranian gas could become operational next month and that Iraq could start exporting gas by 2019.
Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco CEO Khalid al-Falih said many developed countries had been “over-paranoid” about security of supply when more upstream investment at home could have helped address their energy needs.
Tight entry security aside, the airy, well-appointed glass and steel conference center easily dealt with the thousands of WEC delegates. Unfortunately there only appeared to be a few hundred suitable hotel beds in town. As a result many attendees had to make their way twice daily across the traffic-choked city or get bused in from hotels in neighboring towns.
Many found themselves booked into places clearly unaccustomed to western, or even business, guests. A Mideast correspondent for a leading US daily threw a fit when she discovered she had been booked into a by-the-hour ‘love hotel,’ while reporters from one of the world’s biggest newswires complained of dirty linen at their down-at-the-heel hotel. Even the ‘luxury’ conference center hotel got the thumbs down from the few delegates lucky enough to be staying there. The hotel’s Japanese and Chinese restaurants had interchangeable menus, the rooftop bar was often closed, and there was no room service after 10pm, they complained.
But it wasn’t just room service that stopped early. Karaoke bars aside, the only places for delegates to share a beer were 24-hour convenience stores.
Even downtown restaurants were empty by 9 pm and very few of them had English language menus, English language speaking staff or it seemed any previous experience of dealing with non-Koreans. The same went for the city’s taxi drivers, none of whom appeared to understand, speak or read a single word of any language except Korean.
“It’s still an agrarian society,” sniffed one panel moderator.
As a result, leaving the safety of the hotel or even eating out proved too stressful and alien an experience for many non-Korean delegates. Several confessed to having eaten little more than potato chips and chocolates for the duration.
“I’m on the two-day fast diet, so another day didn’t make much difference,” admitted one relieved British delegate as he lined up at the tiny Daegu city airport to fly back home.
And, it turns out that unless you live in Japan or northeast China, Korea is thousands of miles from anywhere. In addition, flights to Daegu are few and far between, and the international-to-domestic transfer process at Seoul-Incheon airport is lengthy and stressful. With all plane tickets sold out months before the conference, many delegates had to use Korea’s efficient, but also foreigner-unfriendly, rail service to get to the conference. Iraq’s al-Shahristani was driven down from Seoul–a four-hour journey.
An estimated 450 reporters struggled to keep pace with the massive program, which ranged from renewables to nuclear, via gas and coal.
Although there was a reasonably-equipped press room and a slick PR machine, there was consternation among the media pack when the internet was shut down–without warning–during Korean President Park Geun-hye’s brief appearance at the conference.
Among the avalanche of press releases, media briefings, speeches and publications were interesting nuggets of oil industry news: Japan’s largest gas utility, Tokyo Gas, is looking at importing Russian gas via pipeline from Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East. South Korea wants to start its joint crude storage plan with Iraq before the earlier target of late 2014. Europe could face blackouts this winter as cheap US coal imports see gas-fired plants mothballed. Angola aims to produce 2 million b/d by 2015, up from 1.7 million b/d now. Moscow is not looking into developing shale gas projects, but is keen to monetize Russia’s untapped unconventional oil reserves.
Given the above it was little surprise that many delegates, speakers and reporters were jet-lagged for the first few days of the conference and plain exhausted, malnourished or both, for the next two. They might just have recovered in time for the next WEC, due to be held in Istanbul in three years’ time. –With contributions from James Bourne, Jacinta Moran, Takeo Kumagai and Charles Lee