Enbridge Inc. legal boss girds for battle over Northern Gateway

Pipeline 'will be built,' David Robottom predicts

January 01, 2012

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David Robottom
Photography by Roth & Ramberg

For the petroleum industry, legal expertise has never been more in demand. Although the task of building a pipeline or drilling a well has never been easy, there was a time when a proponent could propose building energy infrastructure and do it in relative obscurity. But those days are long gone. With the public becoming increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the extraction, production and consumption of oil and gas, resistance to projects that prolong society’s use of these fuel sources has grown more frequent and vociferous.

That resistance has often led to legal challenges by opponents to energy infrastructure projects. And that’s made it imperative for the petroleum sector to have a talented, multi-skilled legal team on hand to ensure it can advance its multi-billion dollar projects.

David Robottom gets to deal with these issues every day. As the executive vice-president and chief legal officer (CLO) for Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. – and this year’s recipient of the C-Suite top CLO award – the life-long Albertan oversees a team of 125 lawyers, legal assistants and paralegals for a company with $11 billion worth of energy projects in the hopper over the next five years. “There is never a lack of things to do,” Robottom says.

A quick overview of the company’s website shows a long list of projects on the docket. There are regional projects – like the planned expansion of the 560,000 barrel per day Athabasca pipeline system and the $1.2 billion Athabasca Twinning Project. There are projects that would increase access to markets in the United States, such as the US$1.15 billion purchase of a 50 per cent interest in the Seaway pipeline system. The company is pursuing opportunities in renewable energy – its investment in the 300 megawatt (MW) Lac Alfred wind project in Quebec is one example. Enbridge even entered the power transmission sector when it bought Toronto-Based Tonbridge Power Inc. and the 300 MW Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) project last summer.

The volume, variety, size and cost of the infrastructure projects Enbridge pursues keep Robottom and his legal team on their toes. Take the Tonbridge deal, which has Enbridge pursuing the MATL power line. The line is one that crosses national borders and has been the subject of land disputes as Montana landowners and Tonbridge squabbled over the proposed route. Closing that deal required different legal skill sets to pull off.

The 58-year-old is an experienced hand at the art of a deal. With over 30 years of legal experience, Robottom – who served as the CEO of the Fraser Milner Casgrain law firm and was a senior partner with Stikeman Elliot before he took the job at Enbridge in 2006 – has had a particular focus on capital markets and mergers and acquisitions during his career. That work came partly by choice (Robottom graduated from the University of Alberta with a commerce degree) and partly by necessity. “Having practiced law in Alberta for many years, it’s hard to avoid the oil and gas industry,” he says.

In his role as Enbridge’s legal boss, Robottom says he doesn’t actually spend a lot of time practicing law. That’s left to members of his team who specialize in areas like regulatory processes or financing. In fact, he says he doesn’t specialize in anything these days, describing himself as a legal “jack of all trades” whose role is to provide a legal angle to senior management when they are looking for advice on new strategies, projects or acquisitions.

One project that looms large for Robottom, and the company as a whole, is the controversial $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline. The project is a prime example of how these steel rivers shipping hydrocarbons have become a lightening rod for the public. The 1,170 kilometer pipeline would link production from Alberta’s oil sands to Asian markets. The crude flowing through the conduit would be shipped to markets by tanker from the port of Kitimat, British Columbia.

The Canadian oil and gas industry views the pipeline as a critical piece of infrastructure, one that will free it from its dependence on the U.S. market and perennial price discounts. But environmental groups, aboriginal people, and other critics are opposed to Northern Gateway for reasons that range from concerns of a tanker spill off B.C. coastal waters to the pipeline’s role in furthering the development of the carbon-intensive oil sands.

With the community hearings portion of a regulatory review underway, Robottom and his legal crew will be tasked with keeping Enbridge and Northern Gateway on legal high ground. He is under no illusion it will be an easy task, nor will it be for any other company pursuing large energy projects in the future.

“My sense is that there will be no end to this debate because infrastructure tends to cause something. If you build a road, somebody’s land has to be underneath that road,” he says. “We’d all like it to see it happen faster, but the reality is people have legitimate issues and you’ve got to go through processes to get them done. But I do believe Northern Gateway will get built. I think we’ve just got to sit down with all the stakeholders and figure out the appropriate way for that to happen.”

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