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Enbridge CEO Al Monaco cautions that the company’s shift to operating in a low-carbon economy will be a lengthy process, so a prudent and balanced approach is required.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Enbridge Inc.'s chief executive officer says the company is proud to embrace renewable energy while still seeking support for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal.

Al Monaco cautions that Enbridge's shift to operating in a low-carbon economy will be a lengthy process, so a prudent and balanced approach is required.

He made the comments on Thursday after participating in a panel discussion at the Globe 2016 conference on sustainable business.

"In terms of our company, we have a responsibility to make sure that we're feeding the energy market with the energy that it wants," he said. "On the other hand, we are making great strides in renewables. Our company alone has put $5-billion into solar and wind projects. These projects take time to develop. The transition is not going to happen overnight."

Since 2002, Enbridge's investments in renewable and alternative energy have included wind farms, solar operations, a geothermal project, waste-heat recovery facilities and a hydroelectric plant.

Mr. Monaco said there will be increased global energy consumption as the planet's population grows and the standard of living rises. Transitioning to cleaner-energy sources will involve reducing carbon emissions in traditional industries while increasing opportunities on the renewable side, he added. "The question is the pace of change."

It is important for Calgary-based Enbridge and other companies to devise pipeline routes that will result in oil exports to new markets, he said. "We have such a wealth of resources in Canada. We've got skills, technology, we've got the capital markets to ensure they're developed. In the longer term, we definitely need access to tidewater," Mr. Monaco said.

Enbridge invested almost $500-million in the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal to transport Alberta bitumen to Kitimat in northwestern British Columbia. Tankers would then transport the bitumen to refineries in Asia.

While Northern Gateway faces opposition from B.C. First Nations and environmentalists, Enbridge remains steadfast in backing the controversial project. "We came to the conclusion that it's best to work with communities without discussing things in the wider perspective or in the media. So we're dealing with communities in order to try and build a greater level of trust, whether it's First Nations or other communities along the right-of-way," Mr. Monaco said.

Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman said there are instances in which it will be possible to change from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources faster than predicted. "In some regions, we can leap straight to a significant renewable grid," she said during a panel discussion titled Accelerating the Energy Transition.

Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, said protests are increasing in the United States from residents who are outraged about hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. In such operations, large amounts of water are mixed with chemicals and then pumped into the ground to extract natural gas.

"No industry will succeed if it is at war with its customers, with its community," he said, noting that the impacts from fracking can be mitigated.

Mr. Porter views natural gas as a "crucial bridge" in the transition to a low-carbon economy, saying liquefied natural gas is part of the solution. "We need to get on with LNG exports," he said.

Suncor Energy Inc. CEO Steve Williams said he is optimistic there will be innovative solutions in the years ahead to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. "I believe that climate change is happening," he said. "Some of the technologies we're seeing will change our paradigm around CO2 production."

The three-day Globe 2016 conference ends Friday.