Brenda Kenny: 7 years atop Canada's most controversial industry as head of CEPA

Brenda Kenny presided over the pipeline industry during the era when pipelines morphed from dull as dishwater to a lightning rod for debate about climate change and the oilsands. Kenny is leaving her post and looks back on seven tumultuous years.

Past president of Canadian Energy Pipeline Association says Canadians need to regain trust in industry

Brenda Kenny was president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association for seven years. (CEPA)

Brenda Kenny started her job as the head of Canadian Energy Pipeline Association back when pipelines were boring.

It was May of 2008, Keystone XL had been on the drawing board for a few months, oil was charging toward its all-time high of $147 US a barrel, and no one outside the industry ever thought about pipelines. Oh, how things have changed.

As she leaves her role at CEPA, Kenny talked to CBC News about what she learned from nearly eight years on top of what is arguably Canada's most controversial industry.

In November, President Barack Obama denied approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline: (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Q: Can you pinpoint the moment that pipelines started to become controversial?

A: I don't think we can pinpoint it, but I do think there was a confluence of events, say five or six years ago.

For example in the space of a year we had the Macondo incident offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and the Michigan accident at Enbridge. I think those two together were an awakening around the awareness of risk at a time when social media was growing.  

The general public has always been aware of those sorts of issues, but I think it took on a new level of interest and concern at the same time that people were seeing, in the news, proposed new pipelines. You put those two together and people say, 'Wait a minute I have questions and I want  those answered.'

That might have been one factor, but also a growing broader interest in tackling climate change, very, very important, and yet there was not a lot of good quality public discourse about the evolution of energy systems and the importance of safe transport for energy while we are still actively using oil and natural gas.

If you weren't thinking about it with clarity, it was easy to put together: 'I'm concerned about climate change and therefore I don't like pipelines.'

Q: How long did it take before the industry realized the times were changing?

A: At any point in history when change is occurring, it's easy to see those first signs as aberrations instead of clear signals. It is true that six, seven years ago, some leaders, smart strategic individuals might have seen those some of these things as one-offs.

But very soon after, as a community of leaders, there was a recognition that not only were things changing outside of them, but things were changing in the industry and there was a deeper recognition that anybody's incident was everybody's incident.

Enbridge said that it will decide in 2016 if it will proceed with the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Q: Do you regret not getting a new export pipeline built during your tenure? 

A: As a Canadian, I do regret that, not as an advocate of the pipeline industry, but because of unintended consequences.

There are two big unintended consequences. First, the extreme safety in which product is moved in pipeline. In over 50 years of transmission pipelines in Canada, there have only been two individuals in the public who were killed. Those  were both tragic incidents, they were individuals on backhoes that did not call before they dug, and unfortunately caused a rupture that killed them.

Over 50 years, an extraordinary record of public safety.- Brenda Kenny, former head of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association

Tragic, but clearly over 50 years, an extraordinary record of public safety. I know that the implication of a lack of pipeline infrastructure is that production will move in a way that's less safe and less environmentally sound, that's troubling to me because I don't think the average Canadian would have liked to see that happen.

Secondly, unintended consequences on government revenue. When you have a lack of access to global markets, we are de-facto subsidizing US consumers because you are taking a lower price for your resource. As Canadians, there have been years when government revenues lost $5 billion in a given year.

Q: What do you think is going to change about this market access issue, with the political change federally and in Alberta?

A: I do hope that with hitting reset on the approach to climate change and on the approach to energy strategy in general, that if Canadians can gain confidence that their governments collectively, are addressing key public interest issues at a policy level, that a part of the mix will be a recognition of the importance for moving energy safely.

We need, as a country, to be very intentional. We cannot afford to be complacent and we cannot afford to not consider a clear positioning for Canada in terms of what it can accomplish in energy and the environment.


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