Lawyer who stood up to Barack Obama over the Keystone pipeline honoured for lifetime achievement
Over the 25 years Kristine Delkus worked as in-house counsel at TransCanada, now known as TC Energy Corp., the company evolved from roughly $10-billion company to a $100-billion entity.
Delkus said it felt as though her responsibilities morphed and grew in lock-step with the company.
I had the best job in the world and the worst job in the world, and often in the same day
“On a day-to-day basis, I had the best job in the world and the worst job in the world, and often in the same day,” joked Delkus, who recently received the Lifetime Achievement award at the Western Canada General Counsel Awards (WCGCA) in Vancouver.
Delkus, who didn’t initially set out for a career in energy law, was able to build a sustainable and increasingly-diverse career in the centre of what has become North America’s growing storm over energy politics, pipelines and climate change.
“I’ve had a front seat perspective to how a business that is technologically sound and environmentally sensitive becomes a rallying cry and an inflection point for a societal movement,” Delkus said in an interview before her acceptance speech.
In more recent years, she occasionally felt as if she was caught in the cross hairs. “During that time, every legal victory was met with another challenge,” she said. “Every outreach program was attacked by influencers with other agendas. Every politician decided that he or she had to weigh in on our projects as litmus tests of their commitment to the planet.”
Delkus said her biggest job was helping to build infrastructure projects for TC Energy, some of which were not completed. “(That) sometimes felt like a real failure, but obviously I have a bit of a broader perspective now,” said Delkus who was named the country’s top in-house lawyer at the Canadian General Counsel Awards in 2016. “But those were really, really challenging times.”
Step out of your comfort zone, both with respect to your career and with respect to how you practise law
Delkus’ work has included the execution of major mergers, including the 1998 deal to merge TransCanada (Now TC Energy) and Nova, two of Canada’s largest companies at the time. Delkus also helped the team with the $17-billion acquisition of U.S.-based Columbia Group in 2016.
More recently, her regulatory and commercial focus was on developing oil, gas and electric infrastructure projects with her functions expanding beyond legal matters to include land and environment issues, communications and government relations.
She was also at the centre of the now abandoned Energy East gas pipeline project — a proposed project intended to bring natural gas from Alberta to the Canadian East Coast, and the Keystone and Keystone XL projects designed to take oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
At the time of her retirement in May, Delkus oversaw 400 employees, including 80 lawyers.
Delkus described her work as exciting, despite the challenges. She highlights her role in launching a NAFTA challenge against the Obama administration over its cancellation of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. In 2016, Delkus told the Financial Post the U.S. decision felt like a “punch in the gut.”
Today, Delkus views the experience in a different light, describing the NAFTA challenge as a “cool” and “interesting” experience.
Delkus started her 35-year legal career in Toronto with Lockwood, Bellmore and Moore, a boutique litigation firm.
In 1987, she moved with her husband to Washington D.C., eventually finding her way into energy regulation law with Morgan, Lewis and Bockius. She didn’t even know energy law was a thing.
“They brought me into their energy practice because I was a Canadian-trained lawyer and they had Canadian energy clients, and for some reason they thought that was just a great connection. It was totally new to me,” she said.
In 1995, TC Energy (then TransCanada PipeLines) brought Delkus into the fold. She’s had various titles over the years but retired this year as their executive vice-president, stakeholder relations and general counsel.
Receiving an honour for her life’s work has spurred much reflection.
Delkus is the child of parents who relocated to Canada from Lithuania shortly after World War II. “They were displaced people and were resettled in Canada who came with nothing except for a bit of a vision and a hope for a better life,” she said.
“My interest in being a lawyer was there for as long as I can remember,” Delkus said. “I can’t really articulate why that is. As children, or young adults, we sometimes formulate visions without really having any concept of what that means.”
Hindsight has armed Delkus with some advice for younger general counsels.
“One is to embrace risk,” she said. “As lawyers we naturally focus on risk. We’re trained to see all sides of an issue. That’s what makes us good lawyers, but it can also make us overly risk adverse.”
To be successful at general counsel, you can’t be afraid, she said. “Step out of your comfort zone, both with respect to your career and with respect to how you practise law and how you think about it.”
These days, it’s not enough for general counsel to know the law well. “You need to understand the broader context of what you’re working on, particularly in energy,” she said. “You need to understand the politics, you need to understand societal movements and trends, because all of those things are going to influence your outcomes.”
Delkus said her career remains a surprise to herself. “I always assumed I would be some kind of a storefront lawyer. So, to have found myself in this place at the end is really quite stunning in a lot of ways to me.”