‘Change The Channel’ On Public Engagement, Says TransCanada VP

  • By

When it comes to public engagement on pipeline projects, the oil and gas industry might consider “changing the channel” to a conversation on what people really care about, a pipeline company executive suggested Wednesday.

When someone talks about the risks associated with the pipeline, the standard technical response is that the probability of a leak is low and there is great risk mitigation and great emergency response, Terri Steeves, vice-president of Canadian projects for TransCanada Corporation, told a session on pipelines at the North American Women in Energy forum in Calgary.

 “But we fail to ask ourselves as an industry, why do they ask the question,” she said. “Do they care about leaks?” What people are concerned about is their health and clean drinking water, said Steeves in a discussion on a better approach to public engagement.

“So let’s change the tune. Let’s not talk about leaks because they actually don’t care about leaks. They care about their quality of life and clean drinking water for their family.”

Instead, the conversation should be changed to ‘what’s the risk of you not having clean drinking water if you don’t have clean, affordable reliable energy,’ the conference heard. “I would suspect the risk of you not having clean drinking water if you didn’t have clean, affordable reliable energy is actually higher than the risk of having a leak,” she said.

“So why don’t we change the channel? Why don’t we change the conversation to be about what people care about?”

People care about their quality of life, about the fact that they have a cool place to be in the summer and a warm place to be in the winter and a roof over their head, said Steeves. “They care that they have clean drinking water and energy infrastructure gives them every single one of those.”

The energy industry, she said, takes responsibility to be innovative and the innovation problem it now needs to solve is about engagement and sustainability. “How do we ensure we are engaging communities, rights holders, landholders to ensure they understand the value of energy infrastructure?” 

The industry likes to believe it’s about facts and that facts matter, said Steeves. “When we are talking about engagement, when we are talking about changing the hearts and minds of Canadians who are potentially opposed to fossil fuels, it is conversational.”

 Part of the shift in the technical world, where industry is trying to get the right technical solutions for all its problems, is that “when we talk about swaying the hearts and minds, it is about relationships and about trust and so your first order of business is to build trust.”

The opposition to projects is twofold: a general opposition to fossil fuels and a growing anti-corporate sentiment out there, said Cindi Ripley, business development manager, merchant terminals for Enbridge Pipelines.

“So it’s really about trust,” she said. “When companies aren’t trusted, it’s hard to gain traction and it’s hard to get projects built. So I think it’s about [establishing] on-the-ground relationships long term.”  

Common facts don’t work, especially in a world where there is no objective truth, according to Ripley, comparing it to “taking a calculator to a gun fight — it is not going to work.”  Instead, “we need to establish an emotional connection between what we do and people’s day to day lives.”

Deanna Burgart, president of Indigenous Engineering Inclusion Inc. and self-proclaimed Indigeneer, agreed: “trust is huge right now with the general public.”

She noted that the conversation around pipelines is a very polarized debate, “very yes or no, either or” and a further conversation to understand the multi-faceted opposition and also to show how pipelines are more sustainable than the alternative would be useful.

Engagement is about changing the narrative and listening more, Burgart suggested.

“We need a values-based conversation because a lot of people have the perspective that it’s either/or and if you are in the industry you are kind of turning your back on the environment for the economy,” she said.

 In having those “tough conversations” with her own family, Burgart said she realized “you can find a respectful place where you are not trying to change each other’s minds but where you are trying to learn from one another.”

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) which represents Canada’s major pipeline companies also has been dealing with the issue of transparency in the information it provides, said Chris Bloomer, president and chief executive officer.

People want to have the industry tell them in ways they can understand, what’s happening, where things are, “what happens when things happen” and if something happens, what is the outcome, he said. They want it more from a story perspective that they can relate to and understand and “that’s a big challenge to do that,” he acknowledged.

In its annual performance report, CEPA consciously focuses on that emotional connection, about understanding what is in the minds of the public and what people are concerned about, said Bloomer.