NEB head pleased with process
DAVID EBNER // October 1, 2007
CALGARY -- The epic regulatory review of the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline has been a success in terms of collecting and assessing the many views on the controversial project, according to the new chairman of the National Energy Board.
"I feel we've done a superb job listening to everybody, carefully," said Gaétan Caron, in his first formal interview. "We haven't cut any corners. We've taken into account all the views people have about the project and we will finish the task of hearing the evidence in October."
The public review of Mackenzie began in January, 2006, in the Northwest Territories, as a two-pronged process with the NEB leading the technical and economic review of the proposal while a separate joint review panel considered environmental and social implications. A final answer had originally been expected in 2007 but various delays mean the decision might not arrive until 2009.
Mr. Caron, who has worked for the regulator his entire career, said he couldn't comment on what lessons have been learned from the Mackenzie review given that the assessment is unresolved. He is one of three panel members overseeing the review.
The NEB review resumes in October in Yellowknife, considering new facts, such as the massive cost increase published by proponent Imperial Oil Ltd. this year, with the new price tag at $16.2-billion, up from a previous $7.5-billion.
Mr. Caron, 51, has a seven-year term in charge of the regulator, which he joined in the 1970s. He was born in Quebec City and was educated as an engineer at Laval University, before completing an MBA at the University of Ottawa when he was working for the NEB. He moved to Calgary when the NEB relocated its headquarters from the capital in 1991, when less than half of the staff made the shift. He enjoys jogging, so much so he even has jogged in minus-40 C in Inuvik. He was chief operating officer of the NEB for about a decade, ending 2003 when he was appointed to the regulator's board, and rose to vice-chairman in 2005.
Given the NEB is a quasi-judicial body, Mr. Caron couldn't comment specifically on the issues surrounding Mackenzie. He said he is very hopeful that the federal government's proposal to create a major projects management office will be a success. Ottawa in its March budget committed $60-million over two years to the idea, which is meant to simplify the wildly complex system now in place where numerous government departments, at various levels, get involved in such reviews. The goal is to cut review times for big projects to two years from four without lowering standards.
In May, retiring NEB chairman Ken Vollman urged Ottawa to overhaul its consultations with first nations if it wants to improve Canada's complicated regulator regime. Mr. Vollman, after retiring, agreed to a contract to stay on as one of the three Mackenzie review panel members.
The 1,200-kilometre Mackenzie pipeline would connect large gas fields in the Mackenzie Delta in the northern NWT with Northern Alberta and an existing pipeline system stringing through the rest of Canada. The Mackenzie pipeline would traverse aboriginal lands and has in part been hindered by legal cases accusing Canada of inadequate consultations.
Ottawa has lost one case on the question in federal court and settled another out of court, which has been one of the many factors that has slowed the overall review process for Mackenzie.
"We can all do a better job" of consultation, Mr. Caron said.
He said the NEB will "actively support" the major projects office idea. Details of the office are expected to emerge this fall.
"Certainly, out of that, there will be improved co-ordination between departments and better communications flows and continually improving methods," Mr. Caron said.
For the NEB itself, retaining its work force of roughly 300 people is a major challenge. In 2005, near the height of the energy boom, it lost about 20 per cent of its staff, a trend that continued into 2006, as the public sector employer simply could not compete with private sector wages. In late 2006, the government gave the NEB the right to dole out more cash to key people, and that has helped reduce the turnover to about 10 per cent.
The first key vacancy Mr. Caron must fill is chief operating officer. Jim Donihee left that post last month to become chief of staff at Pengrowth Energy Trust.
"An organization that resides in downtown Calgary has a people challenge," Mr. Caron said. "[The turnover is still] higher than what we want."