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Louis Bergeron (R) , vice president, Quebec & New Brunswick, Energy East Pipeline, TransCanada sifts through paperwork his offices with staff member Jonathan Abecassis (Communications) in downtown Montreal, February 1, 2016. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)
Louis Bergeron (R) , vice president, Quebec & New Brunswick, Energy East Pipeline, TransCanada sifts through paperwork his offices with staff member Jonathan Abecassis (Communications) in downtown Montreal, February 1, 2016. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)

TransCanada tasks its new Quebec pitchman with selling Energy East Add to ...

The last time Quebec laid a new oil pipeline into the ground and put it into service was 2012.

The project was Oléoduc Saint-Laurent, a 16-inch conduit carrying refined petroleum products from Valero Energy Corp.’s refinery in Lévis, 240 kilometres south to Montreal. And the person who shepherded the $300-million plan from start to finish was Louis Bergeron, a chemical engineer from Quebec City.

Now, Mr. Bergeron is back with a new task. TransCanada Corp. has drafted the 58-year-old francophone father of three to work his magic again as the point person for Quebec and New Brunswick on its proposed $15.7-billion Energy East crude-oil pipeline. The bet is there’s no one better to sell Quebeckers on a new pipeline than the guy who brought the last one to market. The reality is that past success might not ensure triumph for a politically charged project that has splintered provinces apart.

“The perception of the people is not necessarily that the pipeline is bad,” Mr. Bergeron said in an interview at TransCanada’s Sherbrooke Street offices earlier this month. “But maybe they didn’t like the way it was presented, didn’t like the approach, didn’t like the tone. And this is exactly what we’re changing now.”

Hiring Mr. Bergeron is part of a wider effort by the Calgary-based energy company to turn the page on a rocky start in Quebec since Energy East consultations were launched in 2013; a start made worse by the impression Quebeckers had that the former Alberta and Canadian governments had no convincing climate plans. While the Trudeau government now tries to address that problem in its own way, Mr. Bergeron is aiming to engage more with local stakeholders beyond the National Energy Board.

In practice, that means canvassing local politicians and land owners of all stripes. It means leading the company in a voluntary formal examination of the project by Quebec’s environmental review agency. And it means not only explaining the plans during open-house meetings and listening to citizen concerns – something TransCanada officials say they actually do pretty well – but also being able to provide solutions when problems arise. A current Montreal staff of 25 will balloon to 40 if and when the project gets into detailed engineering.

Mr. Bergeron said Quebeckers were asking to deal with a senior TransCanada official having real decision-making power but the company wasn’t able to offer that kind of accessibility until he was hired last fall as vice-president based in Montreal. “Showing them that some decisions can now be made in Montreal quickly … I think is making a difference.”

History suggests showing sensitivity to even the seemingly small-fry stakeholders will also help. One of the most difficult obstacles for Valero’s Saint-Laurent project was winning support to build the pipeline through a protected wood lot on Montreal’s South Shore. The company sought to cut one hectare of trees on the 5,000-hectare area but the local community resisted, Mr. Bergeron recalled. Eventually, a deal was hammered out whereby the company drilled directionally to put the pipeline under the trees, like it does to cross rivers.

Though Energy East has support among many key business leaders in Quebec, you don’t have to look far to find skepticism toward the project.

Montreal-area mayors blasted the company for its decision to skip public hearings last year on the project and last month came out firmly against it, saying the risks outweigh the benefits from taxation and job creation. Energy specialists note that while the plan could be beneficial in helping Quebec’s two refineries further diversify their supply, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary. The Couillard government says it’s up to TransCanada to prove there’s something in it economically for the province after the company dropped a Quebec-based export terminal from the project plan.

Mr. Bergeron frames the criticism in a constructive way, calling them part of a necessary discussion that will lead to greater comfort with the pipeline. A deal TransCanada announced last week with Swiss power equipment maker ABB Group is just one in a series of job-creation partnerships to benefit Quebec, the executive says. TransCanada will tap ABB’s Canadian arm to manufacture at least 22 electrical stations used to power pump stations along the pipeline.

If approved, the pipeline would carry 1.1. million barrels of Alberta oil-sands crude across Canada to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick. Part of the volume would be loaded onto tankers in Saint John, N.B., and exported, giving Alberta’s land-locked oil crucial access to world markets. The portion of the artery running through Quebec would be an all-new build.

When Mr. Bergeron first pitched the Saint-Laurent project, he said he faced constant questions about whether the pipeline was needed. In the end, he was able to rally people behind the idea that it was better to transport petroleum products via pipeline than on rail cars.

“I think 10 years from now, people will think the same” about Energy East, Mr. Bergeron said. “That it was the right thing to do to transport oil.”

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