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National Energy Board chairman Peter Watson speaks in Calgary on Monday.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The new head of the National Energy Board says he has work to do when it comes to the regulator's increasingly uncomfortable position between the vocal opponents and staunch supporters of energy projects.

Environmentalists, First Nations and even municipal governments are challenging the federal board's powers to choose who participates in hearings into major pipelines as well as what gets discussed. It even had to shut down in-person proceedings for Enbridge Inc.'s Line 9 reversal project over fears about safety in the room when protesters became raucous last year. Meanwhile, the NEB has been criticized for not taking into account increasing carbon emissions from oil sands development in pipeline approval decisions.

Chairman Peter Watson says the agency knows it is "in the eye of the storm" in the energy debate as it has intensified. This is why he is launching one push to familiarize Canadians with its responsibilities and workings, and another to demand a greater emphasis on safety among operators of projects, he says.

"I recognize that there's a lot of passion and emotion that people have around these issues, and that's okay. People are people. We will continue to do our job as professionally as we can and ensure that our process follows fundamental principles of natural justice. I'm confident that we're making decisions that factor in social, economic and environmental issues," Mr. Watson said in his first interview since starting his seven-year stint at the helm of the NEB in August.

The work of the NEB, a quasi-judicial body that regulates all oil, gas and electricity projects that have scope beyond provincial borders, went all but unnoticed to much of the country until the past decade, when fears about oil spills and rising emissions of climate-changing carbon turned project applications into battlegrounds for green groups and supporters of the fossil fuel industries. Meanwhile, aboriginal communities have demanded much more say over projects affecting traditional lands. In the case of the Gitxaala Nation, the coastal B.C. First Nation has been granted leave to seek a judicial review of Ottawa's approval of Enbridge's Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which the NEB found to be in the public interest, providing 209 conditions are met.

Mr. Watson, 53, points out that 1,500 people participated in the often-heated Northern Gateway hearings and another 10,000 sent letters. About 400 intervenors have signed up for the Trans Mountain expansion hearing, which began in August with gathering of aboriginal traditional knowledge. For the previous Trans Mountain expansion project in 2006, there were eight intervenors.

The board will now travel across the country to listen to residents and talk about the NEB's roles, approvals and audits of operations.

"We need to do more outside of hearings, to be in communities, to sit across the table from them, to listen to their concerns around safety and performance of the infrastructure we regulate, and really engage more strongly on our performance and the industry's performance. That also applies, of course, to First Nation communities – we've got to do a better job of engaging the First Nation communities," says Mr. Watson, who held a number of senior roles in Alberta's energy and environment ministries before replacing Gaétan Caron as the NEB's top regulator.

On his watch, the NEB will also demand better safety processes among operators of pipelines and other energy infrastructure, as the industry seeks to expand capacity to move oil and gas to the West and East coasts and Canadians worry about oil spills and other mishaps. Safety, not just production or deadlines, must "permeate the culture" in the industry, "and we need leadership within the sector and the companies, setting the right tone at the top, putting the right safety management systems in place, ensure that those systems are continually checked and adjusted."

On the issue of excluding carbon emissions from oil sands from pipeline rulings – even when economic spinoffs are considered – he says the board has made its decisions appropriately. The main reason is that provinces have jurisdiction over projects within their boundaries, rather than the NEB, Mr. Watson says.

"We don't have the ability to look at things that are outside of our mandate, and I think we're properly discharging the jurisdiction that we have within the federation."

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