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Illustration of Gaétan Caron, president and chief executive officer, National Energy Board. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Gaétan Caron, president and chief executive officer, National Energy Board. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

The NEB’s Gaétan Caron: Strumming a new kind of power chord Add to ...

Gaétan Caron has a picture of himself at 12 with his brothers. They are clutching a toy gun. He has something more civilized: a guitar. He is holding it as a leftie, like Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix.

Now in his mid-50s, Mr. Caron owns the same model of Fender Stratocaster as Hendrix. He has a repertoire of some 75 songs – early Beatles, Tom Petty, Rolling Stones – and a band, FedRock, whose name is a giveaway that his day job is more dull than his occasional evening festivities.

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A few times a year, FedRock, with Mr. Caron on lead guitar, regales charities and on one occasion, a gathering of Northwest Territories regulators. On good nights, they strum out Born To Be Wild , or maybe Satisfaction , and hope the floor fills. “A dancing crowd is for us the ultimate satisfaction,” he says.

Mr. Caron is chairman of the National Energy Board, a position that has placed him at the centre of many of Canada’s most vexing energy and environmental issues, and routinely positions him before teams of lawyers and industry titans vying for his support. Sitting at the front of the hearing room, where he looks much like a judge in court, does he ever think of his nights with the Stratocaster? Does he ever wish the lawyers would dance?

He pauses for a moment.

“No.”

But the suits might dance, if they thought it would do them any good. In Mr. Caron’s hands, after all, lies the power of life and death for many of Canada’s energy ambitions.

In 33 years at the National Energy Board, Mr. Caron has become a key figure in a organization weighing an unprecedented number of critical issues. Virtually all of the plans to move Canadian energy to new markets are likely to die unless they can gain NEB support.

Mr. Caron, of course, doesn’t have a say in all of the matters before the NEB. Hearing panels operate independently and Mr. Caron has no involvement in reviewing Northern Gateway, for example, the controversial Enbridge Inc. pipeline project to carry oil sands crude to the B.C. coast. And the Conservative government has seized some decision-making power from the NEB, giving it to cabinet instead.

But Mr. Caron sits atop an organization called upon to help define Canada for decades to come. Will the oil sands be able to continue their expansion? Will pipelines carry Canadian energy to ships bound for Asia? Will the North be transformed by an industry seeking Arctic oil?

If there’s a secret to the way the NEB makes decisions, it is in how Mr. Caron counsels those around him.

He suggests they attempt to paint for themselves two images of Canada, one with a project approved and another with it rejected. The brushstrokes of that image should outline the possibilities of environmental damage, social change, economic opportunity and the impact of previous development. Then decide which image looks better.

“We have a very, very powerful mandate,” Mr. Caron says.

Low-profile no longer

 In broader business circles, Mr. Caron has little public profile. He rarely grants interviews. Last fall, in a speech to energy executives, he acknowledged it was the first time he had spoken at the Calgary Petroleum Club, a place that serves as the city’s locus of economic might.

For all his time with the NEB – or perhaps as a result of it – he remains something of an outsider. It’s obvious in his speech, still underscored with the accent of his upbringing in Quebec City, where his father was in pharmaceutical sales and his mother “was a full-time family manager.” Mr. Caron wanted to be an economist, but during a 1970s “return to the Earth” movement, he changed his mind. “I said, ‘let’s [study] rural engineering. It sounds like going back to nature.’”

He left Quebec in 1979 to take his first job with the NEB, then based in Ottawa. But long after the NEB moved to Calgary in 1991, however, his roots are unmistakable. Mr. Caron speaks French at home – he is married with two children – and at Wine-Ohs, a downtown restaurant, he orders duck confit poutine.

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