Energy pipeline companies may prefer to focus on quietly conducting their business underground. But in the aftermath of high-profile oil spills and in the middle of a contentious political debate over the desirability of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project, the industry is trying to rise above the charges of its critics.

On Thursday, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association called reporters to a press conference in Ottawa to go public with its "Integrity First" initiative – something it says has been developing incrementally behind the scenes for about four years.

"We're making some important decisions in our country about new pipeline projects and the role of energy in Canada," said Brenda Kenny, the group's president and CEO. "These will dramatically affect Canada's position in North America and in the global energy markets and it's our job to make sure that these discussions and decisions are well-informed."

'We're involved in a highly politically charged project in Northern Gateway and it requires us going to measures to get the word out to the Canadian public.'—Patrick Daniel, Enbridge CEO

The membership of Kenny's industry association includes the companies that account for the vast majority of Canada's oil and gas pipelines. But she didn't mention Enbridge by name during her news conference, preferring instead to speak generally about the industry's collective desire to "go from good to great" in terms of safety and avoiding spills.

"Every company recognizes that there are some very important questions being asked and we need to be a lot more transparent," Kenny said, helping Canadians "see the role of pipelines in the fabric of our society."

"There have been a lot of headlines in the last two months, unquestionably," Kenny said. But she said this initiative is not a public relations campaign.

The association will work to share best practices across the industry and educate the public.  Kenny's group does not work on regulatory enforcement measures, leaving compliance issues to other agencies.

"I would fully acknowledge that as a sector we're coming to this late in terms of going public with the programs that we have underway," she said. "You will be seeing a lot more of us."

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver commented on the pipeline association's public effort, saying it is clearly in reaction to recent spills.

"It is correct that pipelines are the safest form of transportation for oil and gas, and there's a long track record to substantiate that," Oliver told host Evan Solomon on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. "However, there have been some recent spills and I said we're, as a government, not happy with that. We consider safety to be absolutely a critical objective and it's very important the industry agree and take the steps that they are taking, and I think they do agree."

Responding to Moore's criticism

Last week, Enbridge's track record was the subject of barbed remarks from the Harper government's senior minister in British Columbia.

James Moore told a private radio program in Vancouver that the company behind the unpopular Northern Gateway pipeline proposal had left a "sour taste in the mouth" with its recent conduct, both in terms of responding to recent oil spills and its lack of outreach and consultation in B.C. for the Northern Gateway project. 

"Just because British Columbia is physically the Asia-Pacific gateway, it doesn’t mean that we’re the doormat for companies like Enbridge to think that they can go ahead and do business without having due diligence and taking care of the public’s interest," Moore said during the interview.

Reporters Thursday tried to get Kenny to respond to Moore's remarks. 

"I'm sure that in the months to come there will continue to be gratuitous remarks, and our job is to keep our head down and deliver to Canadians what they deserve, which is a pipeline network which is second to none in terms of safety and performance," the CEO said.

"Energy infrastructure in Canada's history has been contentious in the past," she said, reminding reporters that a national pipeline debate led to the defeat of a Liberal government in the 1950s. "I think when you reach a nexus of energy infrastructure and what matters to the nation, you do tend to see active debate.

"We intend to participate not in shaping policy – that is up to politicians and the public to decide – but we do have a role," she said.

The natural resources minister said that it's not his role to defend any particular company and that he is concerned with the safety records of pipeline companies generally.

"The record has been a very good one over a long time, but, they've got to attend to business and we know that with new technology the pipelines are becoming safer," Oliver said, adding that when there is a spill there has to be an analysis of what went wrong and what can be learned from it.

Oliver said the government has invested a lot of money in measures to ensure pipeline safety, including an increased number of inspections and audits.

"Frankly, if we have to do more, we will do more because we want this to be absolutely world-class in terms of safety," he said.

Enbridge concerned about public profile

The CEO at the centre of the storm right now, Enbridge's Patrick Daniel, told CBC News in an interview on Tuesday that his company was concerned about the attention it was receiving because of the "very high political profile" of a project like the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"We are concerned about it, and we're not used to it to tell you the truth, and we don't like it. We don't like being in the public eye the way we are," Daniel said. "We're used to being very much under the radar screen, quietly going about the business of ... reliably delivering energy in Canada and to have this kind of public profile is very unusual for us."

Daniel's interview came as his company was trying a new tactic: full page national newspaper ads to defend its safety record. He said his company's efforts were "already a couple of orders of magnitude above and beyond anything we've ever done before" and highlighted its recently announced $500-million safety upgrade for the future pipeline.

The CEO said he was worried about Moore's remarks last week.

"That's why we feel it's very important to get the track record of Enbridge out and available to the public," he told CBC News. "We do have a profile that we haven't in the past and it's very important to us to make sure that people understand that we've been in this business and reliably providing service for many many years."

Daniel also appeared to take issue with Moore's assertion that it hadn't been doing enough on the ground in B.C. to explain the project to First Nations and other concerned groups.

"We've been working for a dozen years on that," he said. "We've had over 17,000 meetings with individuals ... and groups in B.C. We just have to keep working that and working it through the regulatory process to make sure that people understand the full story around the Gateway pipeline project."

Daniel said he didn't think his company was losing political support for the Gateway pipeline.

"It's just far too important to the country and there's nobody better to do this than Enbridge," he said, pointing out that Canada can't get a better price for oilsands bitumen unless it finds new markets in Asia, which the pipeline to the West Coast is designed to facilitate.

"I think what it indicates is that we're involved in a highly politically charged project in Northern Gateway and it requires us going to measures to get the word out to the Canadian public," Daniel said.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited British Columbia earlier this week, he didn't echo Moore's criticism of Enbridge. Nor did he completely back off his government's previously expressed support for the pipeline proposal, while emphasizing that his government doesn't "pick and choose" among resource development projects.

Harper did emphasize that the review of the Gateway pipeline proposal would be an "independent evaluation conducted by scientists."

"The only way that governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically and not simply on political criteria," the prime minister said.

The prime minister reiterated that trade with the Asia-Pacific region is of "vital interest" to both B.C. and Canada.

Oliver also emphasized in his interview with Solomon that the Enbridge pipeline is being evaluated independently by the National Energy Board.

"We're putting safety first. No project is going to go ahead unless it's safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," he said.