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Vollman Appointed New NEB Chairman

Vollman Appointed New NEB Chairman

Under new leadership appointed last week, Canada's National Energy Board is vowing to become more user-friendly and easier to understand at the same time as it grows busier.

Ken Vollman, a 53-year-old engineer raised on a Saskatchewan farm and formed by gritty work in western oilfields, was candid about challenges facing the agency when he was appointed its new chairman July 15 by Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale.

In an interview, Vollman reported that he and fellow members of the NEB came up with five priorities in talking about the future since Roland Priddle retired as chairman in January. The collegial approach will be a hallmark of the new regime, Vollman said. He said the board above all has to accept that it is operating in a steadily busier, more contentious Canada, as the oil and gas industry becomes increasingly competitive, spreads to the Atlantic region and deals with ever more public participation. Priority one will be managing a "very high and unpredictable applications workload." A decade ago, Canada's national energy watchdog averaged 60-80 days of hearings per year. In 1997, NEB three-member panels held 180 days of hearings. The new chairman expects the workload to be "slightly higher" this year. Running a close second on the priority list will be efforts to "enhance the clarity and consistency" of environmental assessments that the NEB has been assigned to conduct under still-new Canadian legislation. Vollman described the board's task as piecing together two very different processes of economic and environmental regulation in a way that makes sense and follows rules that improve on today's early version, which are "just not very clear."

Priority number three will be improving Canadian public confidence in the safety of pipelines. Vollman observes that a string of NEB investigations have shown that, at least statistically, pipelines are becoming somewhat less prone to breaking down. But, in a new phenomenon of the late-'90s for Canada, no NEB hearing on new facilities goes by without serious public challenges from intervenors animated by media coverage of spectacular explosions and fireballs. In a recent speech to a trade conference in Calgary, Vollman told the industry to expect the NEB to become steadily more vigilant on safety standards and set a target of zero pipeline accidents.

The board's fourth priority will be to resume an interrupted series of overview reports on Canadian energy resources and markets, also in answer to growing public demand. Last but not least, Vollman is also vowing to make the NEB more accessible to a Canadian public that has made it plain it wants to be more engaged in board processes, especially when cases raise safety and environmental issues. A start was made in the NEB's hearings on Alliance Pipeline Project, when residents of remote areas along the proposed route intervened and testified over live long-distance telephone connections.

Canada's federal energy minister called Vollman the "ideal choice" as successor to Priddle. The new chairman got his basic training in industry as an engineer with Mobil Canada, largely working out in oil and gas fields rather than corporate offices for eight years as an engineering student then full-time employee. He then worked his way up the ranks of board staff, emerging as director-general of pipeline regulation before his appointment as an NEB member in 1988. He has chaired board panels in some of the board's biggest recent cases, including a marathon inquiry into SCC (stress-corrosion cracking) of pipelines and the hotly-contested approvals of the Sable Offshore Energy Project and allied Maritimes &amp Northeast Pipeline.

Gordon Jaremko, Calgary

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