One day in 2013, Susannah Pierce was in her hometown of Calgary, surveying the flood damage to the house she had just finished renovating, when she got a phone call.
It was Andy Calitz, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC (NYSE:RDS) colleague whom she had known and worked with when she lived in the Netherlands, which she had left a few months earlier.
“He said, ‘Susannah, would you consider doing a job in Vancouver?’”
The job would be external relations director for a $40 billion liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia called LNG Canada.
Pierce thought for a moment.
“The house that I just finished renovating, half of it got swept away by the floods,” she recalls. The school that her two children attended had also been so badly damaged in the floods that it was condemned.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘All right. No school, house is half gone, my ex lives in Vancouver with his new wife.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Maybe that’s not a bad idea.’”
So she packed up her kids and moved to Vancouver to begin working for LNG Canada, a consortium of five companies with Shell as the biggest stakeholder.
Her job would include getting the massive LNG project through the environmental review process and working with various stakeholders, government officials, community leaders and First Nations to get the social licence that has become such a critical part of any project in Canada.
In October 2018, the consortium partners formally announced a final investment decision. The project was a go.
LNG Canada is not the first major energy project Pierce has worked on. Twelve years ago, she also worked on the original Keystone pipeline while living in New Jersey. Prior to that, she lived in New York, and was there when the 2001 terrorist attacks took down the World Trade Center twin towers.
“I lost a few friends in the towers,” she said. “Those were people I had worked with.”
The attack was one of the events that prompted her to re--evaluate her life and to come back to Canada.
Born in Regina, Pierce grew up in Calgary, where her father, a lawyer, worked for the oil and gas industry. She had originally wanted to go into journalism or something in international affairs. But she ultimately followed her father into the resources field.
After graduating high school, she spent a few months travelling in Europe, then moved to Washington, D.C., to earn a bachelor’s degree in political communication from George Washington University. While still an undergrad, she got a job as an intern working for New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.
She then went on to get a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University from the School of Advanced International Studies, where she focused on energy and the environment.
While still in graduate school, she took a sabbatical, travelled to Chile and worked for a Chilean company that was converting a coal-fired power plant to a natural gas plant.
After getting her master’s degree, she worked for a couple of technology companies in the U.S., then landed a job with Foothills Pipe Lines, which later became TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP). TransCanada eventually sent her back to the U.S. to work on its various energy projects there.
In 2009, Shell Canada hired her, brought her back to Calgary and then sent her to The Hague in the Netherlands, where she lived for two years. By then she had two children and had recently separated from her husband, a Canadian.
She called her work in the Netherlands her “dream job” – managing Shell’s external relations for its upstream international portfolio in the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Australia – and said one of her toughest career decisions was giving up that job for her children’s sake.
“It was after a lot of thinking and soul-searching that I decided that I needed to come back to Canada so their father can be involved in their lives,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t giving the kids the right opportunities because I was working.”
She was prepared to resign, but Shell wanted to keep her and offered her a job back in Calgary exploring new business opportunities. She had been back in Calgary for less than a year when she got the offer to handle external relations for LNG Canada.
As Pierce points out, public relations used to be something that tended to come at the tail end of a large energy project, once all the technical issues were dealt with. But in an age when securing social licence is a key requirement, people like Pierce are now in the vanguard.
“Whereas when we developed energy projects, for years it was really making sure we had the technical design right and it was economic,” Pierce said. “But now we are really spending time hoping we have the social design right and the stakeholder design right. And that, I think, is so critical in today’s world.”
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