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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 ...

“I’ve seen it plenty of times. I’ve never indulged,” he says.

It’s a heavy plate – but then, so is the task before Mr. Caron. Before 2010, the NEB was much like its leader: low-profile. That was before BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded at its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a massive oil spill and the death of 11 workers. Suddenly the safety profile of the entire oil and gas industry blew into public view. The NEB began to more actively punish companies for bad behaviour, issuing a series of rare “pressure restrictions” that cut the amount of oil or gas that could flow through certain pipelines.

“A new board was born on April 20, 2010, with the Gulf of Mexico,” Mr. Caron says.

It wasn’t just issuing press releases or appearing before parliamentary committees. “The change that happened in Macondo was the realization that a low-probability, high-consequence event had occurred. In risk management, you acquire a duty to reassess everything,” he says.

The NEB also found change thrust upon it. The federal government took from the board final authority to turn down projects, and mandated new deadlines – moves that, Mr. Caron says, won’t “change at all the way we work.” Ottawa also handed the NEB, which oversees 71,000 kilometres of pipelines, money for more inspections and new powers to fine companies for wrongdoing. Last fall, at the Calgary Petroleum Club, Mr. Caron urged companies to adopt a psychology of safety and warned that “we will not hesitate to apply the full force of the law.”

But he also made clear that the NEB isn’t waving around a shiny new gun. “What we’re looking for is compliance, not to fine people.”

Northern exposure

 The hamlets of the Arctic Coast and Baffin Island have traditionally been foreign territory for the NEB. They are far from the energy giants of Calgary, and the billions they are marshaling for new projects that need the NEB’s blessing.

Yet, for Mr. Caron, Northern Canada has become a test case for redrawing the organization in which he has spent his entire working life. In past years, he has travelled to towns like Kugluktuk, Qikiqtarjuaqand Taloyoak as part of an NEB effort to establish trust among people who could one day see oil drilling.

Public trust hasn’t always been helped by the NEB’s record of approving a large proportion of the projects it considers. Mr. Caron counters by saying the application requirements are so onerous that “there’s a huge amount of natural selection that occurs. … To even walk in the door is a very, very high burden.”

But in Northern Canada, Mr. Caron has come face-to-face with those skeptical that a Calgary-based regulator funded by the energy industry can act in their communities’ best interest. He has listened to elders and hunters, high school students and land claims organizations.

“The North is a big part of what is inside my heart. As a person and as a Canadian,” he says. But Mr. Caron sees the NEB as an organization with a unique ability to help. One of its chief mandates is a “robust regulatory regime” for the North – and the exercise of assembling that, Mr. Caron says, can export power to northerners.

“I include in my hopes and dreams the necessity to have these people reacquire pride in themselves, economic self-sufficiency, and a life which is meaningful to them.”

It is a big ambition, and time is running out for Mr. Caron. June 8, 2014, is the final day of his seven-year term as NEB chair. Between now and then, the NEB will make recommendations on some of its most controversial proposals, including Northern Gateway.

How the board acts will show how well it has grasped the public interest, something it has acknowledged “changes as society’s values and preferences evolve.”

Because, for Mr. Caron, the real measure of satisfaction lies in who dances to his chords. It’s in attempting to draft a vision for Canada’s future in which oil companies, fishermen and rig-hands have an equal stake.

“The biggest challenge is to have people believe that we deeply care about what they’re telling us.”

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