CALGARY, Alberta -- So there is Russ Girling, TransCanada's CEO, tubing giddily through a meandering oil pipeline, crude oil streaking his face, cackling about how a "little old-fashioned lying" got a gullible American public to buy into his Keystone XL pipeline.
He shoots out the other side to exuberantly confess another deception. "We said that the Keystone pipeline was going to increase American oil independence," he says. "You want to see who it's really going to increase oil independence for?" He points to a fleet of Chinese supertankers sailing from American shores.
Of course, this isn't the real Russ Girling. It's an actor playing him in a commercial by the anti-Keystone environmental group NextGen Climate Action financed by Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who's made it his personal goal to derail the $5.4 billion project.
Girling's reaction? "I didn't have a negative reaction to it, though maybe I should have," he said in an interview. "But I texted my wife and kids and said, 'You know, you might see this so you should probably take a look.' . . . You can't let that stuff bother you personally."
Others weren't so reticent. Canada's Financial Post newspaper took national umbrage, declaring the spot "a low blow to Canada" and proof that "American anti-oil activists have gone mad" and are in need of "adult supervision."
Still, those who know Girling well think his low-key, water-off-a-duck's-back approach may end up being the industry's most potent weapon in this long-running PR battle.
"Environmental groups have built up a mythology about people who are producing oil in our world," said Ruth Ramsden-Wood, the former United Way of Calgary CEO who asked Girling to be co-chairman of the 2012 fundraising campaign there. "Russ is a regular, everyday person. He's very humble. He's very self-effacing. I think he has a manner people will listen to."
Alex Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines for Calgary-based TransCanada who's worked with Girling for nearly two decades, agreed. "It is rather ironic that this very private, very disciplined and focused guy has suddenly become plastered all over the front pages of newspapers all over North America," he said. "That is not a spotlight he either seeks or enjoys."
That's an understatement. With the buzz cut he's sported for the past two decades, his penchant for dark suits, white shirts and staid ties, the fit, 51-year-old Girling exudes the politeness and earnest optimism of the cub scout he once was.
When he took the top job at TransCanada in 2010, rising from the finance side, he assumed what most Canadians assumed -- that the U.S., Canada's longtime chief energy partner, wanted Keystone XL, the estimated 4,000 construction jobs it would create and the heavy oil-sands crude that would feed Gulf Coast refineries that had undergone multibillion-dollar retrofits to accept it.
Since then, the politics have grown fractious, with the 1,179-mile pipeline being turned into a proxy fight for climate change by U.S.-led green groups. Protests have spread and went Hollywood in August of 2011 when actor Daryl Hannah chained herself to a White House fence with other environmentalists.
Steyer, a Democrat and a major contributor to President Obama's presidential campaigns, has even challenged Girling to a public debate. While Girling has demurred, all the star power marshaled against him and a project core to TransCanada's identity has gotten his attention.
"We were ill-prepared for what ensued," said Girling, seated at a wooden round table during a recent interview at his office in TransCanada's 38-story steel-and-glass high rise in downtown Calgary. Family photos share the walls with mementos of successful deals. Art is spare -- an oil painting of a lone cowboy riding in a snowy field on a sunny day is hung above his desk.
"It reminds me of living in Alberta," said Girling, who was born in this province of Alberta city of about 1.2 million people, Canada's unofficial oil and gas hub. "I very much like the rider and the sunshine."
Oil industry stumbles
Sunny corporate experiences for TransCanada -- at least in the public sphere -- have been rare lately, and Girling concedes that the industry hasn't helped itself. He rattles off a series of high-profile accidents that galvanized a green movement looking for a fresh way to frame the anti-Keystone argument.
First, BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in April 2010, causing the largest offshore U.S. oil spill. Then, the rupture of an Enbridge oil-sands pipeline in Michigan polluted the Kalamazoo River. Finally, the explosion of a gas pipeline owned by PG&E in a suburb of San Francisco killed eight people.
"This whole concern about pipeline safety was grabbed by those environmental groups and they took it to the living rooms in Nebraska," said Girling.
Critics say TransCanada erred by not anticipating Keystone's route could become controversial and by resisting early entreaties to change it before it spilled into a public fight. Whatever the case, Nebraskan ranchers -- worried about the potential threat of a pipeline rupture atop a vast aquifer that runs under the ecologically sensitive area known as the Sand Hills -- were soon lobbying to have the line rerouted.
Obama in January 2012 sided with the ranchers, rejecting the pipeline until TransCanada could come up with a new path. This, despite efforts from Congressional Republicans to force the administration's hand to approve it.
Girling wasn't giving up that easily. After getting a heads-up on the rejection a couple of hours before the news went public, he spent the next 90 minutes on his cell phone, during a drive from Vancouver to the ski resort of Whistler where he was to give a speech, hatching a new plan to re-apply.
These days, nearly four years after becoming CEO, Girling figures he spends half his time trying to assure skeptics that pipelines proposed to carry oil-sands crude, known also as bitumen, won't destroy the planet. A debate with Steyer would have been more about emotion than facts, Girling said.
NOt about to blow up the planet
Steyer remains adamant that Girling and TransCanada aren't leveling with the American people on who will benefit from tar-sands oil.
"We have heard Mr. Girling and his executives say repeatedly that Keystone XL would mean Americans would benefit from 'energy from a trusted ally.' If this is true, they should be able to clearly state how much of the refined oil from KXL will be sold in the U.S. But it seems they cannot and will not answer this central question," Steyer said in an email.
Girling's refusal to debate wins no fans among critics.
"If he feels so confident in the case for Keystone, why isn't he willing to debate somebody like Steyer who might actually have the facts at his fingertips?" said Ross Hammond, a senior campaigner with Friends of the Earth, a green group fighting Keystone XL.
Girling even had to reassure his mother, a fan of actor Robert Redford, that TransCanada wasn't about to "blow up the planet" after the movie star called Alberta's bitumen the "dirtiest oil on the planet" in a video.
Canadian musician Neil Young followed suit and held concerts across the country last month to criticize the oil sands and Keystone XL. While Girling was disappointed by Young's stance, he still likes Young's music. "He's really, really good," he said.
Staffers say that's vintage Girling. "I'm not sure I've ever seen Russ lose his cool," said Pourbaix.
That doesn't mean it's any fun. "These things grind on you 24/7," Girling said. "To see people in the newspaper calling you names isn't fun."
There is some solace. Girling earned $7.9 million in 2012, including stock and option awards, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Energy business lifer
Girling embodies the middle-class Canadian ethic. He grew up one of three sons in a Calgary family of five. His father worked for the Canada Post. He knew as early as high school, where he started dating his wife-to-be, that he wanted to pursue a business career. He enrolled at the University of Calgary, first getting a degree in finance and later an MBA.
He's been a lifer in the energy business. In his first job out of school, he joined the marketing department of Dome Petroleum as an analyst in the natural gas liquids group. He worked a variety of positions before joining TransCanada in 1994 through the company's acquisition of Northridge Petroleum Marketing.
Girling says his desire to become CEO evolved over time as he came to understand TransCanada. He never expected the job would entail being the center of attention in a U.S. political fight over climate change.
Instead of facing off with Steyer, Girling fields phone calls from opponents including soccer moms, takes flights to Washington to meet with regulators and politicians, and rides herd on TransCanada's communications blitz.
"Press releases, anything that we're doing publicly, I want to see. That wouldn't be a natural inclination of a CEO," Girling said. "My job, as I expected when I came in, would be pretty much 99 percent focused on running the business."
In theory, the battle could be over soon. The U.S. State Department released a final environmental report on Keystone XL Jan. 31 that concluded Alberta's oil sands will be developed with or without the pipeline, delivering a blow to the project's opponents who say blocking it would trap the carbon-heavy crude underground.
Now the department is leading a 90-day process that includes more consultation with other departments and the public to make a recommendation to Obama, who has the final say, on whether the line is in the U.S. national interest.
Meanwhile, Girling says, he's willing to listen as much as lobby. In September, Judi Poulson, an anti-Keystone XL activist and homemaker from Fairmont, Minn., managed to get through to Girling on his office number for a five-minute talk.
"It was a big thing that he even took my call," said Poulson, 72. He listened carefully and asked why she thinks the line would worsen climate change, Poulson said. "I was surprised how nice he was."
That said, Poulson was ultimately unswayed. "The call had nothing to do with changing my mind -- it had to do with changing his. It didn't, but he listened and that was good."