Our Conversation with an Enbridge VP, Part 3
Lately, we’ve been thinking our way through the conversation we had a week ago Wednesday with Enbridge Vice President Mark Sitek. Rather than providing a transcript from memory of that conversation, we’ve touched upon some of its highlights to try and understand– even to diagnose– the malady that plagues Enbridge (in our view). So far, we’ve discussed Enbridge’s insularity and the difficulty they seem to have looking at matters from the point of view of others– obviously, those two things are related.
In our third installment, we will consider another related trait: the trouble Enbridge seems to have taking accountability for its actions.
Part 3: Taking Accountability
Before we begin this discussion, we’d like to provide a brief point of information. Some readers– particularly Enbridge readers (assuming we have any) might think that we have violated some trust by writing openly about our conversation with Mark Sitek– even though we think (or hope) that they would concede that we’ve been quite respectful towards him. Nevertheless, to allay such concerns, we’d like to note here for the record that at the end of our conversation, we told Mark that we’d like to write about our conversation on this blog. We also told him that if he would prefer that we did not do so that we would respect his wishes. In other words, we sought Mark’s permission to write about our exchange. Graciously, he registered no objection. So with that little preface: onward.
As we’ve noted numerous times in the past, one of Enbridge’s stated core values is this: “take accountability for our actions, without passing blame others.” Enbridge talks a lot about this, even though, in our view, they have serious difficulty with this one. And the reason they have such difficulty, we think, is that they seem not to know what it really means to take accountability.
Former Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel is a case in point. He recently provided a very clear illustration of Enbridge’s peculiar mode of taking responsibility. Daniel said this about Marshall
“We made mistakes in our control room. They were honest mistakes, but the characterization used by the NTSB is completely unfair and inappropriate. Why they resorted to name-calling is beyond me,” Daniel says.
On the one hand, Daniel seems to take accountability (“we made mistakes”), while on the other, he evades the truth. After all, the NTSB report shows very clearly that the mistakes that made the Marshall spill so severe weren’t “honest” ones. For instance, ignoring your company’s own safety protocols is not “an honest mistake.” And then, as if not squarely confronting the truth of the matter weren’t enough, Daniel attempts to turn the tables and paint his company as the victim of “unfair” “name-calling.” This is not taking accountability– it’s pretending to take accountability.
We see the same pattern in the recent remarks of Enbirdge spokesperson Jennifer Smith. In one newspaper article, Smith says:
“The Marshall incident was very unfortunate. . .There’s no way to say it wasn’t. It was horrible … We have been apologizing and trying to make it right ever since.”
That’s not bad. That sounds a lot like taking accountability– especially the apologizing and, even more especially, the “trying to make it right part” (even though it’s debatable how hard they’ve really tried to make it right). But then, in another newspaper article, Smith says of Marshall:
. . . a confluence of unfortunate events and circumstances conspired to result in an outcome no one wanted.
This, of course, is practically a textbook example of how NOT to take accountability– while pretending that you are. This characterization makes it sound like things just magically happened, that unforeseen and unknowable forces beyond anyone’s controlled just somehow “conspired” (ie, operated secretly), resulting in an outcome. Notice how there are no actual people (by which we mean Enbridge employees) involved in Smith’s characterization; there are only “events.” Smith may as well have just said “stuff happens.” But of course we know from the NTSB reports what those “events and circumstances” were. They were events and circumstances of Enbridge’s own making. Enbridge employees acted badly, made bad decisions, failed to do their jobs. To not acknowledge that is to not take accountability. Period.
One more quick example before we return to Mark Sitek. As we just saw from Jennifer Smith, Enbridge likes to talk about how hard they’ve worked to make things right since Marshall– seeming to take accountability. In fact, they’ve been running around for some time, telling everyone who will listen that the Kalamazoo River is cleaner than ever– and they’re doing so while the EPA is telling them that there is still much more cleanup that needs to be done. In the same way, Enbridge is telling people in the communities surrounding Marshall that there’s no need to continue testing their water while those communities are seeing results in the water tests that suggest the need to remain vigilant. What both of these examples show is that Enbridge keeps wanting to think that they’re done, that they’ve done what they’ve needed to do, that they’ve taken accountability. But if they REALLY wanted to take accountability they would realize that they aren’t the ones who get to decide when things have been made right. That privilege belongs entirely to those who have been wronged.
Which brings us back to our conversation with Mark Sitek. Mark spent a lot of time in our conversation saying things “we’re not perfect” and “we’ve made mistakes.” When I told him about the process of our negotiations he said that they “should not have been that difficult.” Of the handling of the Line 6B replacement project, he said, “I’m not convinced that this project was done perfectly in every respect.”
Now all of that sounds a lot like taking accountability. At the time, I was actually sort of hopeful that it was a genuine effort to take accountability. But when I followed up later with an email mentioning a few very specific matters, things changed. For each of the items I mentioned, Mark had an explanation, a justification, a way of NOT accepting that perhaps Enbridge had done something wrong, made a mistake, treated us badly, engaged in unfair or alienating practices.
We found this deeply disappointing (and we told Mark so). But more than that, we recognized it as a distinctive Enbridge pattern. We realized that this is Enbridge’s peculiar way of taking accountability (which is to say, of NOT taking accountability): do so only in the abstract; do so only in the vaguest of ways; do so only generally. That’s what phrases like “we made honest mistakes” and “we’re not perfect” do– they fail to take accountability while simultaneously employing the language of accountability. It’s very clever.
But here’s the other part of the pattern: when confronted with an actual, specific example of a mistake or a troubling practice, something concrete and measurable, Enbridge will deny it every time. They’ll generate an explanation, provide a justification, tell us there’s something we just don’t understand. In other words, Enbridge takes accountability for their actions– just not any particular actions, just not specific actions. What they won’t do is really look those actions and practices in the face; they won’t look themselves in the face– even though, it seems to us, that sort of sober, unpleasant reflection is the very essence of taking accountability. In our experience, Enbridge seems incapable of understanding that.