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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.

“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.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

BEGINNINGS

Born April 24, 1956

Earned a bachelor of applied science in rural engineering from Laval University

Got an MBA from the University of Ottawa in 1987

CAREER

Joined the NEB on May 22, 1979 as a pipeline engineer.

Has held positions of increasing responsibility, including director of pipeline engineering, director of financial regulation, chief operating officer, vice-chairman and, as of 2007, chairman and chief executive officer.

GUITAR LESSONS

Best way to tune a guitar? Open G, like Keith Richards. “When you listen to Honky Tonk Woman, to start the song, you don’t use your left hand. You just strum on your guitar, and the strings are naturally tuned to have a nice sound.”

Best song to get people on the dance floor? Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild. “Classic rock, crowd-pleaser.”

ON ANGLOPHONE CANADA

Mr. Caron says he “moved to Ottawa with my broken English and my wrong assumptions about English Canada.” What exactly were those? He won’t say. “The correct assumption I’m making now is that English and French are meant to co-exist in this grand country.”

AFTER THE NEB

“I wouldn’t mind a form of freedom. I wouldn’t mind a much smaller-scale operation. Somewhere you can help others. Either in the field of energy or music or the social side of communicating well-being.”

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