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TC Energy CEO Russ Girling, seen here in Calgary, Alta,. on March 31, 2020, will retire at the end of the year.TODD KOROL/Reuters

TC Energy Corp. boss Russ Girling has been cheerleading his company’s Keystone pipeline expansion for more than a decade – guiding the company over years of redesigns, court and regulatory hurdles – but will retire as chief executive at the end of the year before seeing the project completed.

TC Energy announced Monday that its current chief operating officer, François Poirier, who heads up the company’s power and storage arm, will take the helm of the Canadian pipeline operator. Mr. Poirier faces something of an uphill battle on the Keystone front. Not only do court actions continue in the U.S., he may also have to contend with a new U.S. administration hostile to the project.

That of course will depend on the outcome of the November election, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden vowing to rip up Donald Trump’s approvals for the pipeline if he wins the White House.

Despite those looming challenges, analysts don’t expect a dramatic shift in strategic direction when Mr. Poirier takes over the Calgary-based company, particularly because the role was filled internally.

“There’s a lot of bench strength there, and I think they will just continue to push forward. Russ was very optimistic on the project, as was the company as a whole, and I’m not sure it will change the approach,” said Ian Gillies, managing director of institutional research at Stifel FirstEnergy.

“One of the great things about TC is their strategy hasn’t changed a lot, no matter who’s at the helm.”

The Keystone project received a boost in March when the Alberta government agreed to contribute US$1.1-billion to gain an ownership stake that it plans to sell back to the company after commercial operations begin. It will also guarantee US$4.2-billion of debt related to the 1,947-kilometre pipeline.

Mr. Poirier spent 25 years in investment banking, consulting and as a corporate director before he landed at TC Energy six years ago. That included stints as the head of investment banking and capital markets for Wells Fargo Securities Canada Ltd., and power and pipelines investment banking at J.P. Morgan Securities in New York. From 2007 to 2011, he was also an independent director of Capital Power Income LP.

He will have big shoes to fill when he takes over TC Energy on Jan. 1.

Mr. Girling led TC Energy through a period of unprecedented growth, including the development of its liquids-pipelines business, expansion of its power-generation portfolio and its US$13-billion acquisition of Columbia Pipeline Group in 2016.

The price of TC Energy stocks has increased to more than $60 from $35 since he was appointed CEO in 2010, with strong stock returns the result of “numerous operational and strategic wins" over his tenure at the company, Mr. Gillies wrote in an equity report Monday morning.

Mr. Girling is widely seen as a down-to-earth oil executive and straight-talking Albertan. He also has his fingers in many pies, as a director at Nutrien Ltd., the American Petroleum Institute and the Business Council of Canada.

Mr. Girling was not made available for an interview Monday, but said in a statement that it has been a “privilege and honour" to lead TC Energy.

“We have accomplished many things, delivered the energy critical to millions of people safely and reliably every day, and created significant shareholder value. I am grateful for the opportunity and confident in how the company is positioned to prosper as global demand for energy continues to grow and transition in the years ahead," he said.

And while the timing of Monday’s announcement may come as a modest surprise to the market, Mr. Gillies said the choice of Mr. Girling’s successor is a strong one that doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

He also noted in his report that Mr. Poirier’s significant involvement in TC Energy’s power business – including renewables – could suggest that the sector will play a larger role in the company’s future corporate strategy.

Siim Vanaselja, chairperson of TC Energy’s board, said in a statement that he and his fellow directors are confident in their selection having seen Mr. Poirier’s “outstanding vision and leadership" during his time at the company.

"His integrity, strategic thinking, commercial acumen and bottom-line focus will serve the company well in the years ahead,” he said.

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