Risk and responsibility: changing the conversation (speech)

cbw-risk and responsibility

The Future of Pipelines: Moving From Public Safety to Public Trust, Dynamic Risk Partners Conference 2015: Dynamic Risk is a provider of modeling and asset management solutions for North America’s pipeline companies that prides itself on providing its clients with “integrity beyond the pipeline.” As you know, I’m a little obsessed with pipelines and the North American/world pipeline debate, so when VP Client Services Don Chesniak asked me to deliver the keynote speech at Dynamic Risk’s June 5, 2015 client conference I said yes almost before he finished asking.

Want to hear what I said? Of course you do. And if you don’t—stop reading now.

Risk and responsibility: changing the conversation

Draft of speech delivered at 9:30 a.m., June 5, 2015
The Future of Pipelines: Moving From Public Safety to Public Trust, Dynamic Risk Partners Conference 2015
Azuridge Estates, Priddis, Alberta

Theme: Tired of the way we talk about corporate social responsibility? Good. The way proponents and opponents of energy and infrastructure projects talk about risk and responsibility—to each other, to the public, and even internally—is unproductive and rooted in outmoded assumptions. Here’s how each one of us can change the conversation, to everyone’s benefit.

Hello. So… I have a surprise for you. I won’t actually be talking about corporate social responsibility. When the folks at Dynamic Risk sent me a draft agenda for today, the topic of my speech was simply flagged as “CSR” and I had a little internal freak out: “Wah, are you trying to scare people away? We are all so sick of talking about CSR! No one is going to come!”

Now that’s not to imply that I think social responsibility, be it personal, corporate, institutional, whatever, isn’t important. It’s critical to our well-being, economic and otherwise. And so is risk. Which is why what I will be talking to you about today is not corporate social responsibility but risk and responsibility. And suggesting some ways we need to change the conversation around both these topics—which are, really, one intertwined issue—so that when we do talk about them, we actually get somewhere.

I write and speak about the energy industry from a specific philosophical position, as does anyone, I suppose, and I’d like to bare all my prejudices and contradictions to you before I start preaching—I won’t really be preaching, by the way, although I might at moments get a little evangelical—I mean, enthusiastic.

I’ve built my career on, effectively, “translating” Alberta and the West to Bay Street, and to some degree Montreal and New York. When I talk with people in Ontario and in Quebec and on the American Eastern Seaboard, I usually introduce myself like this:

Hi. My name is Marzena. And I’m a hydrocarbon addict.

And what follows is a borderline stand-up routine in which I outline all the everyday ways in which I consume oil and gas—I’ve got a bit of wind happening right now in my personal mix, but let’s face it, it’s mostly gas, oil and, this being Alberta, a generous dollop of coal thrown in. And I don’t operate an oilsands pit mine, obviously. I just, you know. Drive a car. Store my food in a fridge. Own and use a laptop, telephone, washer and dryer. Have a really sick love affair with a Vita-Mix—this blender that has a gearbox—nothing energy efficient about the way I make my smoothies, even when their ingredients are organic and locally grown.

The punchline of that particular performance is a little cruel. I stop, look at the audience, and say, “So. I’m here to learn. Tell me. How do you do it? How do you live your life without hydrocarbons? Without consuming all this energy? I want to know. I want to stop.”

And then there’s this pause—where everyone shuffles a little uncomfortably and looks at themselves and looks at me, and wonders what the hell is coming next… and I say, “Oh. You mean… you’re all hydrocarbon addicts too? Oh-my-god. I didn’t realize. You see… the way you talk about Alberta, people like me, our addiction… I thought… I thought you had it all figured out. But you’re all users too.”

And then I open the floor to questions.

Now—this is not one of the tools I’m suggesting you use to change the conversation. It kind of gets an Eastern Canadian audience riled up, angry and defensive, and they start throwing “buts” at me— “but you’re the suppliers” and “but your emissions are worse” and “but your industry’s safety record,” no one’s ever thrown anything real so far—and you won’t either, right? Because I’m about to get to the part when I try to rile you.

Anyway. Point: I open aggressively, and I whole-heartedly embrace one side of the issue, and I play it kind of ruthlessly to achieve the polemic effect I want.

And I’m effective—if my goal is to evoke an emotional response, get remembered, and preach to the choir—the handful of people in the audience who share my position. But if my goal is to make the people who are opponents of the position I’m espousing to think, to empathize, and to understand me and my position—I’m so totally ineffective.

So, you’ve met the hydrocarbon addict. Now. The other side of me. Everyone in the audience from Alberta? Who’s excited about our new Orange Government? Who votes for the Green Party in federal elections?

That’s me. I’m very excited about our change in government. I have a crush on Elizabeth May—and I firmly believe one day in the future, Alberta will vote Green the way it voted Orange. We are an incredible place when it comes to taking risk—we’re going to take risks, politically, economically, and socially—that other provinces dare not take. That’s why we’re such an awesome place to live, to create, to do business in.

So. Green Party voting hydrocarbon addict. I should tell you: I drive a Toyota Tundra. Nominally because it’s roomy enough to put three kids in the back for cross-country camping trips—but, really, because it’s just really awesome to drive a truck. But, with all the consciousness of my addiction… I also identify as an ardent environmentalist.

I do all the basic things that I’m sure most of you do: I recycle. I try to compost. And then some weirder stuff. I buy most of my food through a 30-family run food co-op, which is sort of the second most hippy thing you can do about sourcing your food other than growing your own. I know how to cook dandelions. There are no cleaning products in my home that couldn’t be safely drunk by a baby. I try to bike instead of driving the sexy truck whenever it makes sense. Buy second hand, re-use, reduce. Consume as little as possible.

It’s aspirational: I’m not altogether successful at this. I like pretty things. Art. Gadgets. But I believe I have to try: I am this Earth’s steward and not its master, and I need to do what I can to pass it down to my children in a better condition than I’ve found it.

And I believe, completely, each of you here, shares this same value. Who doesn’t want to pass that which is most important on to their children? Who doesn’t want to make life better for our littles and their littles? How many parents in the room? Seriously, do I even need to ask the question? Are any of you thinking, what I really want to do is screw up the world for my kids! Yeah!

But opponents and proponents of—insert environmental issue here, be it Northern Gateway, Keystone, oil sands development, that overpass over there, that well there—talk as if… not even as if that’s a possibility, but as if that kind of attitude that’s a given fact. That there is a camp of people who just want to rape and pillage the Earth and don’t give a damn about what their children and grandchildren will have to deal with.

Why do we do that?

I think it’s pretty simple, why. We do it because it’s easy and we’re lazy. It’s easy to polarize. It’s easy to just go, “You’re wrong.” It’s easy to demonize. What’s hard is… to really understand the Other.

I’m an environmentalist who knows, intimately, that most of the people who run companies in the energy sector are good people. I know this because I know them. And I know them on a very particular level—they’re not my friends. They’re not my tribe—we hardly ever go to the same parties and we definitely do not belong to the same social clubs. Or, generally, political parties. They are, to me, sources and gatekeepers. Our relationship has rules of engagement: they have a message they want to get out. I have a story I need to pull out of them. This can be a controversial, conflict-laden relationship—like that between opponents and proponents of pipelines, wind farms.

I choose not to make it such. I choose not to demonize them, even when our agendas conflict. I choose to understand their position and where they’re coming from—as fully as I can.

I was interviewing Al Monaco and Pat Daniel of Enbridge at a point when the media hysteria about Northern Gateway was at its height. I use the word “hysteria” on purpose and after pondering if it was the right one to use—it is—you can ask me about that later, if you like. And what I took away from those conversations was, well, two things. First—these were two decent men. Really. They did not want to destroy the Earth, or the ecologically sensitive parts of British Columbia. They were doing their absolute best to do the thing that made the most economic sense for their company—for their shareholders—and, by extension, for Alberta and for Canada. They really believed they were doing the best for the whole: what they were engaged in was NOT a selfish corporate money grab.

Also, they were trying, for the most part, to do their best to cover their environmental risk basis.

And they were doing an appalling job of communicating this to the public.

Why? Because these were not just decent people—but also very, very smart people. With deep pockets, and an entire army of professional communicators helping them communicate. What were they doing wrong?

The simple answer, for today’s purposes, is that they weren’t owning risk and responsibility. They weren’t able to talk about risk, and their responsibility for that risk, their assumption of that risk in a way that sounded honest and true to the people on the ground.

See how I didn’t use the word “authentic” in that sentence, by the way? One of the things that’s wrong with the way we talk about risk and responsibility—and corporate social responsibility, and personal responsibility, frankly—is that we use words like authentic, integrity until they mean nothing: —“The CEO was authentic; our company acts with integrity!” And when we hear them, instead of listening, we just roll our eyes and shut off. Don’t tell me you’re a company that acts with integrity—just BE a company that acts with integrity. Do you go around telling people, “I’m a person of integrity?” If you are, everyone knows you’re a con man and selling something. People of integrity just ARE.

Sorry. End of rant. Back to my ‘we wanna build a pipeline’ people: They weren’t owning risk and responsibility for a variety of reasons. I’d like to make it clear, I’m not picking on Enbridge—give me any energy company, any company in almost any industry with environmental impact, and 99 out of 100 of them do the same thing.

They develop “key messaging” around the sensitive topic. This key messaging minimizes risk—it throws out data and numbers that show, conclusively, that the chance of risk is so small as to be almost non-existent, what the heck are you worried about? Then that message is contradicted by fake authenticity: “We know you’re worried—even though you shouldn’t be, didn’t you just see our powerpoint slide that showed you how small the risk is? Don’t worry. We’re on top it.” Incomprehensible technical jargon about how you’re on top of it. Cue picture of pristine pond and ducks, preferably alive. (Sorry.) Closing tagline: Trust us. We care.

And… I don’t believe you. The people don’t believe you. Because that same month—maybe that same day—there’s been a spill. A leak. An explosion. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t at one of your facilities—that you’re not personally responsible. You’re collectively responsible, in my mind, as an industry. You can’t tell me your new pipeline will never (almost never) leak—because that pipeline in the US just leaked. You can’t tell me your operations are safe, because I’m looking at horrible pictures of something unsafe from elsewhere.

You have to own the risk.

You have to say, there is risk. Even if it’s small, the consequences can be horrible. That’s responsibility. Responsibility is owning that risk. Admitting that risk. Talking about my fears of that risk as real and legitimate—not doing your best to downplay them.

Lawyers, public relations people, and habits, just habits get in the way of doing this. So does defensiveness. When I talk with people who lead energy companies, or who are in some kind of crisis, I often find they’re defensive before I even ask the hard question. They’re ready for attack—counter-attack—and they’ve got their key messages ready, and they don’t listen to my questions, and, as a result… I don’t listen to their answers. And so, we don’t hear each other, it’s not a conversation, it’s two monologues. Or, worse a shouting match in which neither party hears the other—and everyone comes away angry and frustrated.

That is not good for anyone, right?

As a writer and storyteller, to get at the “truth”—or, let’s say, the real story, or the story that matters, maybe those are less emotive terms? —what I need to do is knock people off their key messages. Oilsands CEO or Greenpeace spokesperson, pipeline technician or local activist, oil rig worker or off-the-grid New Age hippy—they all have their key messages and they’re ready with them.

My secret weapon is six words. “Tell me. I want to understand.”

I have a reputation as this magic interviewer who gets amazing quotes. It’s not magic. It’s this. “Tell me. I want to understand.” I want to understand the proponents and the opponents. I’m a hydrocarbon addict and a steward of the Earth—so is each of them. I make no assumption that I’m better. That I have the answer. That I’ve figured it out. I don’t know so many things. I want to know. I want to understand.

You have to understand before you criticize.

I think the biggest problem with how most environmental activists approach the conversation—is that they don’t understand business. Finance. Or economics, or the industry. They demonize it and they fear it. They caricature it. Because they don’t understand it, they can dismiss its priorities.

When you understand something, it’s harder to hate it. It’s harder to be black and white about it… and it’s harder to offer simplistic solutions. Stop oil sands development! OK. And then what? We all know it’s not that simple. That’s now how we’re going to change the world.

So. I have homework for you, because I want to change the world, and I want you to change the world, and I really, really believe changing the way we talk about risk and responsibility is the way to do it. It’s a three part assignment.

The first part, is easy. It’s my secret weapon. “Tell me. I want to understand.” Do this when you interact with the Other—the opponent of your position—be it within your workplace or in the public sphere—try it the next time you’re in a team meeting, actually. Or arguing with your significant other. Start small. “Tell me. I want to understand.”

And really listen. Don’t argue, don’t counter. Is it totally ridiculous? Like, utterly crazy, insane, conspiracy-theory grade crap? Doesn’t matter. Listen. Where is it coming from? Follow the thread of fallacy to its source. But do it inside your head. Your task is NOT to convince… but to understand. Completely.

Then, you can strategize. But first, understand.

The second part, it’s hard. Own the risk, own the responsibility. If you are active in the energy industry, you are responsible for the risk of the entire energy industry. Fair? Hell, no. But you’re not whiny four-year-olds. You know it’s not fair. It is what it is. You have to own their screw-ups, their weaknesses, as much as your own—because they affect you. You have to recognize that when I’m angry at you—when I’m questioning what you’re doing, what you want to do—it’s never about you, about this particular project. It’s about every environmental and social mishap that ever there was.

And it’s not rational. It never will be. Those of you in long-term relationships, you will know this very well—by the time you’ve been together a few years, no fight is ever about the size of this month’s visa bill or that you were 30 minutes late for dinner tonight. It’s about everything that you’ve ever done that’s upset your spouse for the past 20 years—and if one of my friends is getting divorced at the moment, it’s also about all the rotten things their ex is doing right now.

Conflict in industry works exactly the same way.

So: Don’t deny, don’t be defensive. Understand. Accept that you are being held responsible for sins you did not commit—may never commit. This doesn’t mean, by the way, confessing to those sins—lawyers won’t let you do that, anyway. It just means owning risk. Accepting that there is risk, and that my fear of that risk is real… and you understand it.

Finally, part three… remember what I said about how most environmental activists don’t understand business, your business, your industry? Same goes for most people. Honestly, I’ve written on energy for 15 years, more, and I’m kind of brilliant, and I on every story I do, I encounter technology, processes, terminology I do not understand. So. When you talk about your projects—and when you talk about risk—you are responsible for educating the people you’re talking to. Not obfuscating the issues with jargon and statistics—but really explaining the issues to them. Assume that they’ve said to you, “Tell me. I want to understand.” And tell them.

Throw key messages out of the window. And talk about real, scary things. Economic imperatives and vulnerabilities. The stuff that makes you, from a business perspective, break out in a cold sweat at night—and why that should matter to every citizen, every tax payer—most of all, the people who would call themselves your opponents. Tell them, honestly, what it is that you are trying to achieve, to balance. What it is that makes your job really difficult.

Maybe, if they are really listening, and really understand, they will say something that offers a solution, an approach you didn’t consider. Creativity and innovation exists at points of friction, right?

I’m going to end by anticipating a question. The question is, “That’s all very well. But it takes two to talk, to dialogue. What if THEY’re not willing to understand and to listen?”

Someone has to start. I’ve chosen to be that person, in my small way, in each interaction I have with the energy industry, its proponents, its opponents and the people affected by their stupid, unproductive fighting. I think each of you can choose to be that person too. I really think you have nothing to lose: the current way of talking about risk and responsibility is simply not working.

Am I wrong?

If I am…

Tell me. I want to understand.

* * * *

What do you think?

I think everyone at the conference had an incredible time. A big congratulations to the Dynamic Risk people: I go to a lot of these things, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more engaged, enthusiastic group of people … at the end of the day, after numerous sessions, workshops and break-out groups.

The other external presenters/speakers at the conference included:

David and Jamie Dyck (“The Man Who Lived”)

Dasa Chadwick, Leverage Point Learning

Jim Donihee, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association

Sessions led by Dynamic Risk people included:

Welcome + Setting the stage for success: Trevor MacFarlane, President and CEO, Dynamic Risk

Regulations changes: what it means to you: Keith Leewis

From data to decisions: prioritizing your data integration efforts: Edgar Sweet

ILI lifecycle management: Samah Hasan

Management systems and compliance: Phillip Nidd

IRAS Software Road Map: Darren Shearer

Azuridge Estates, the location at which the conference was held, is one of the most beautiful, serene places I’ve seen in this very beautiful province of ours. If you have a chance to check it out, it’s worth the brief detour off The Cowboy Trail south of yyc.

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