Our conversation with an Enbridge VP, Part 1

Oct 26, 2012 by

As we’ve mentioned, on Wednesday we had an extended telephone conversation with Enbridge Vice President for Major Projects Execution Mark Sitek; he’s the VP who signed the “letter” that appeared in lots of newspapers a couple of weeks back. Mark struck us as a good man, easy to talk to, and a good listener. We’re grateful he took the time to speak with us–especially since so many other folks at Enbridge– like spokesperson Jennifer Smith and Lands and Right-of-Way Project Manager Doug Aller– are clearly ducking us.

As you can imagine, there is an awful lot to report from the conversation. We think we learned some important things from the experience and we confirmed for ourselves some other impressions we’ve had about Enbridge for a while. So instead of just providing a summary of our conversation, we thought we’d focus on what was instructive about the exchange and attempt to extrapolate from it some general lessons– touching upon details of the conversation as we go.  

Part 1: Insularity and Perspective  

We have long thought that Enbridge lacks a sense of perspective. By this we don’t just mean that they seem to have difficulty taking the perspective of others (landowners, especially)– that will be the topic of another installment in this series. We mean that Enbridge lacks a sense of proportion, a sense of scale or magnitude. This, we think, is what accounts for the tendency of Enbridge to portray itself as beleaguered, besieged, and beaten up, their tendency to think of themselves– to openly portray themselves — as victims of unfair criticism, criticism from people who just mindlessly think that Enbridge is evil, or from fanatical environmentalists, or from people who just don’t seem to understand the importance of petroleum products in modern life. Yet these are mostly straw men.

You can see this sense of victimhood in Enbridge’s legal arguments for why they shouldn’t have to answer certain questions in MPSC proceedings (because doing so would be “unduly burdensome” to them, because the questions are “excessive and abusive”). You can also see it in former CEO Patrick Daniel’s public remarks about how Enbridge is under siege from “revolutionaries” who want to change our way of life and colluders in the media who take everything the revolutionaries say “as gospel.” You can see it in the way that Enbridge representatives like Joe Martucci respond to legitimate concerns by talking about how we use oil to fuel our vehicles, as if we don’t already know that.

Now, to be fair, I’m certain there is plenty of unfair criticism of Enbridge. I’m sure that one could probably find some examples of revolutionaries who want to radically change our way of life by taking down oil pipeline companies. I’m sure that there are people who, mainly out of frustration, think that Enbridge is “evil.” (Sitek went out of his way to assure me that Enbridge is not evil; in turn, I noted that I have NEVER said any such thing.
Go ahead: search this blog.). We’re also sure that if you’ve worked for a company for 20 years or more, developed good personal and professional relationships with your co-workers, and generally had a positive experience you might respond to waves of criticism and bad press for your company a little defensively. We understand that. In fact, we’ll even concede that it is to Enbridge’s credit that they appear to foster a strong sense of loyalty in their employees; they must be doing something right.

At the same time, however, you’d have to have a very insular, a very narrow view to accept Enbridge’s view of its critics. The idea that the tiny minority of people in the U.S. and Canada who fit the descriptions above (revolutionaries, etc.) are responsible for Enbridge’s woes is a self-serving fantasy– a fantasy born, we believe, of that same insularity. Enbridge seems to have convinced itself of this story; it appears to be one that they have told themselves so often for so long that it has come to seem to them real or true.

We saw more than a little of this in our conversation with Mark Sitek and a subsequent email exchange we’ve had. Sitek was clearly quite sensitive about public perceptions of Enbridge and quick to defend his employer; he evn spent some time defending Patrick Daniel. But the most instructive example was when we mentioned to him that Enbridge’s relations with landowners would have been much better had they been more willing to hold public forums, to reach out to the general public. To his credit, Sitek (sort of) acknowledged the point. Yet he also hastened to say that Enbridge was reluctant to hold such forums because in the past they have gotten “ambushed”– by which, we assume he means that a lot of angry citizens were there eager to criticize, vocalize, and express their displeasure.

What was our response to this remarkable statement? We said this: a few Enbridge spokespersons having to endure some impassioned speeches from unhappy landowners is hardly an ambush. Having the representative of a multinational corporation show up at your door with all the power of state government backing him up telling you that the company is going to obliterate the portion of your property you most hold dear whether you like it or not– THAT is getting ambushed.

In the same way, a few months of tough questions from politicians and regulators, a flurry of unflattering articles in the news, some lawsuits, a couple of blogs trying to insist that your actions line up with your professed values– these things may well be a nuisance, but they hardly amount to being beleaguered, besieged, and beaten up. In the larger scheme of things, they’re nothing. After all, the fact of the matter is that Enbridge is ultimately going to get everything it wants: it’s going to put its pipe in the ground. It’s going to expand its volume. It’s going to make hundreds of millions of dollars doing so. And we don’t begrudge them any of that.

What we begrudge is their unwillingness to accept that they are largely responsible for the negative public perception of their company. And we begrudge the fact that they don’t really understand– in the true scale of things– what it means to take some lumps. That is, for all of the families who have been threatened and mistreated by Enbridge ROW agents, who have been mislead, mistreated, and unfairly compensated, who can’t get answers to simple questions, or who can’t be sure of the truthfulness of answers they do get, who have had their lives and homes disrupted, who have felt (justifiably) completely powerless in the face of a large corporation and state condemnation laws, who have spent weeks and months living with uncertainty and anxiety– for all of those people, the outcome of all of this is much less clear than it is for Enbridge. Those families might not get their way in anything at all. They have no choice but to accept Enbridge’s way. THAT is what it means to be beleaguered, besieged, and beaten up.

So the very least that Enbridge could do– the very least– is to step back and recognize THIS reality. But that would entail, as one of their core corporate values states, “tak[ing] the time to understand the perspective of others.” Enbridge’s unwillingness– or inability– to do that will be the subject of our second installment. Stay tuned.

Up next: Part 2: Understanding the Perspective of Others

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