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TransCanada CEO calm in Keystone XL uproar

When he became TransCanada CEO in 2010, Russ Girling, shown here in this photograph from earlier this month, assumed the U.S., Canada’s longtime chief energy partner, wanted Keystone XL, the estimated 4,000 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. (Bloomberg News photo)

By Rebecca Penty

Bloomberg News

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.

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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’sTransCanada 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 fi t, 51-year-old Girling exudes the politeness and earnest optimism of the cub scout he once was. 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