It wasn't long ago that most Canadians had no idea that the National Energy Board (NEB) existed, according to its own head.
But Gaétan Caron, the outgoing chairman and chief executive officer of the national energy regulator, said those days of anonymity are long gone. The regulator now grapples with a "perfect storm" of high demand to expand energy exports at the same time public scrutiny of energy projects has increased – including on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to bring oil to the West Coast.
"In terms of the media, parliamentary and public coverage of the event, it's something that just a few years ago we weren't used to," he said of the hearings on the controversial Enbridge Inc. pipeline that would feed oil sands bitumen to growing Asian markets. Joint review panel hearings lasting 18 months that wrapped up last year were followed carefully by journalists, politicians and activists alike.
Mr. Caron, 58, who is leaving June 7 after exactly 35 years at the board, is able to recount decades of pipeline battles back to the Mackenzie Valley proposal of the 1970s. But the new era of increasing scrutiny, he said, began in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion. The subsequent oil spill went on for months, devastated ocean-dependent economies in the U.S. Gulf Coast states and plastered thousands of birds, mammals and sea turtles with oil.
Even a country away, the spill made Canadians question the safety of energy infrastructure. Other pipeline spills, including Kalamazoo River in Michigan and regional spills in Alberta, added to the weight of public concern.
He says the change is apparent. When the board reviewed an application from Kinder Morgan Inc. for its Anchor Loop project – a 2006 Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that required construction work in Jasper National Park – there were eight intervenors. In the current review of the project to twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, just a few years later, there are 400 intervenors.
But being accountable is a good thing, Mr. Caron said, adding that he leaves the board with no major issues unexamined. In the end, he said the board is a creation of Parliament, governed by legislation in terms of what it will examine to determine whether a pipeline project will be good for Canada – and the board is not in the business of making policy. He said the debate over whether the board should look at rising greenhouse gas emissions from expanding oil sands production when it considers energy projects – as some environmentalists have argued – will continue because legislation on the matter is "not black and white. Otherwise people would never go to court."
But he added: "We deal with pipelines and their impact. We don't deal with whether society should be dependent on hydrocarbons."
In 1991, the Mulroney government moved the board's offices to Calgary as part of a policy to more widely distribute the country's public institutions. Mr. Caron said the city – with its concentration of oil and gas company head offices – is still a good fit, and an entrepreneurial environment has melded with public service values, making for a stronger board.
This year, the 450-employee organization will move into a new Calgary office building with more space for more staff to review project applications and with a $28-million allocation over two years "to provide timeline certainty and to enhance the Participant Funding Program," according to federal budget documents.
As for Mr. Caron, he sees his departure next month not as a retirement but as a chance for some introspection. While he likes the idea of an academic role related to energy, the environment or regulatory issues, he wants to spent more time with family and playing guitar in his band FedRock, made up of current and former NEB employees and spouses.
Mr. Caron's successor hasn't been chosen yet. He has only one piece of advice for whoever comes next: "Listen carefully to your staff before you make a move. Good things happen when you listen to your staff."