Unseen figures control corporate actions

Carrel takes a look back at how a recognized gas company became engulfed in a new anonymous world.

On his return from an inspection trip to examine the results of the clean-up undertaken by Enbridge following an oil spill in Michigan, a Terrace municipal official was impressed with what he saw and experienced. He cautioned citizens to “dig into [the] facts who Enbridge is” when evaluating their proposal for the Northern Gateway Project.

Enbridge Inc. is a Calgary-based pipeline transport company, initially incorporated in 1949 under the name of Interprovincial Pipe Line. The company is headed by a 12-member board of directors, one half of whom reside in Canada the other half in the U.S.

The average age of the eleven men and one woman who make up the board is 66 years. The average length of their term on the board is 8.8 years.

The Chair, David A. Arledge, lives in Naples, Florida. That does not tell me who Enbridge is; it only gives me a thumbnail picture of the company’s highest authority.

Enbridge is a corporation, what the law dictionary defines as “a legal entity distinct from its shareholders or members with liability separate from its shareholders or members vested with the capacity of continuous succession.”

Put simply, a corporation is born from man’s imagination. Its structure is comparable in principle to that of a bunch of pre-teen boys with an excess of energy and too much free time: they can come up with some wild ideas, but when they get into trouble … nobody is responsible.

My first well-paid job in Canada was with Westcoast Transmission Company Limited, a company in the same business as Enbridge, and both created in 1949. When I started to work for Westcoast, nearly 50 years ago, the board chair was Frank McMahon, an entrepreneur par excellence. Frank had lobbied hard to bring about a change in Canadian law to allow the export of natural gas to the US.

When the law Frank was promoting was finally passed, his company built Canada’s first big-inch pipeline to pump natural gas from the treatment plant in Taylor B.C. (named after Frank) to the US.

Everybody who worked for Westcoast then knew Frank, or at least we felt as if we knew him.

His picture and signature adorned the “Message from the Chairman” in the company’s monthly newsmagazine. Frank was the company: the company reflected his vision, his ambition, and his values. That is how people knew who Westcoast was and what it stood for.  Soon after McMahon’s death in 1986 his company was renamed Westcoast Energy Inc., and in 2002 it was bought out by Duke Energy of North Carolina for $8 billion.

Spectra Energy is also in the picture somehow and frankly, finding out what has become of Frank McMahon’s Westcoast company will confuse anyone who attempts to do so.

The pipeline network Frank and his company built has been expanded enormously over the past half century, but most of it is still in the ground and still moves gas from northern B.C. to the U.S.

We cannot know corporations in the way we can know human beings. In that sense, corporations do not exist at all. Corporations are artificial creations that exist in law only.

Westcoast, Duke, Spectra, Interprovincial, and Enbridge are little more than brands, carefully nurtured creations from someone’s imagination. They have no shape, no colour, no odour, no feelings, no guilt, and make no sound. How we citizens perceive the corporations among us depends on the decisions of the people who act in the name of these corporations. These people are mostly strangers to us, they come and they go.

The important proviso is that these people are not personally responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

Our reality flows from the consequences of the decisions made by persons who are themselves protected from these very consequences.

Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace, B.C.

 

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