Heavily regulated, closely watched and taking in/paying out huge sums of money, the petroleum sector in Atlantic Canada is always in need of legal advice to keep the oil and gas flowing. However, despite the importance of lawyers in keeping the business running like a well-oiled machine, the profession often goes unnoticed by the general public for its contributions to the sector.
Here at Natural Resources Magazine, we’ve decided to change that. What follows are profiles of three of the region’s top oil and gas legal minds, their thoughts on what they do and why it’s so important to a sector that remains a significant contributor to Atlantic Canada’s economy.
The accidental lawyer
The Hickman name is well known in Newfoundland and Labrador’s business circles. The Marco Group, founded by Stephanie Hickman’s father, Tom Hickman, is one of Atlantic Canada’s leading commercial construction companies. Business is in her family’s blood, and Hickman says she envisioned having a career in business as she entered adulthood.
“I wasn’t one of these kids who woke up and thought I wanted to be a lawyer. My family background is business. I was attracted more to business and the people side of work. I wanted to work with people,” she says. “After a couple of years working in Toronto I decided I wanted to go to law school. I had some friends who were in law school. I liked the way they were thinking and solving problems. I thought I would give it a shot. I realized law is the ultimate service industry, where your day is never the same and you are dealing with people constantly.”
As a lawyer, you don’t tell clients what they want to hear but what the impediments are and provide solutions to the impediments they face.”
Cox & Palmer
The career choice—even though she backed into it—has worked out well for Hickman. She’s become a partner in the St. John’s office of the Cox & Palmer law firm with a focus on oil and gas law. She’s also very good at it. Since 2013 Hickman has been listed by the Best Lawyers in Canada publication as a leading practitioner in oil and gas, energy and construction law.
Called to the bar in 1996, Hickman joined the firm as an associate just as the offshore oil age was arriving in Newfoundland and Labrador with Hibernia coming found herself working with one of Cox & Palmer’s senior partners, Sandy MacDonald (MacDonald was sworn in as justice of the provincial Supreme Court in 2017). MacDonald was part of its oil and gas law group and he asked Hickman to help him out on some files. She enjoyed the work. “It was exciting. It was the industry that offered the most promise to the province and the region,” she says. “When you are starting off you don’t often have much choice about the kind of work you are going to do. I was fortunate enough to get involved in that at an early stage and have been involved in it ever since.”
That involvement has resulted in her working on a variety of oil and gas legal issues, dealing with the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore regulatory regime, litigation, contractual and project development issues. She was also Husky Energy’s counsel for the Cougar Helicopters crash inquiry. With offshore wells costing millions of dollars to drill and with oil and natural gas production bringing in hundreds of millions and billions of dollars to oil and gas companies and the jurisdictions where they reside, the stakes are always high. The industry is also tightly regulated and scrutinized. That’s why those involved in the sector depend on expert legal advice from lawyers like Hickman to avoid disputes with regulators, governments, competing companies and stakeholders.
The stakes have gotten even higher with the industry stuck in a downturn since 2015. Hickman says that has impacted the demands oil and gas clients are putting on Atlantic Canada’s legal minds. “I think clients are looking for innovative approaches both internally and with their external advisors. They are looking for leaner and smarter solutions. They always have been, but even more so now it’s results-oriented.”
Getting those results in today’s world means not only knowing the law but knowing your clients’ business and their objectives. Hickman says lawyers can’t add value to their oil and gas clients if they aren’t providing that kind of advice. “As a lawyer, you don’t tell clients what they want to hear but what the impediments are and provide solutions to the impediments they face. That’s not always easy, but that’s the job of a lawyer,” Hickman says. “You do that by doing a lot of listening, particularly early on, asking some questions consistently and challenging them on what’s most important to them. That helps create a strategy and an approach. There’s no magic.”
Even with the tough times the East Coast offshore oil and gas sector has faced in recent years, the St. John’s resident is bullish on the future of the industry. And she is helping shape it not only through her legal work, but as a member of the provincial government’s Oil and Gas Development Council. The council was created in 2016 to develop a long-term vision for the province’s oil and gas sector, focused on a more sustainable and competitive industry.
While she’s feeling positive about the future of the industry, she says the challenge for local firms like Cox & Palmer is ensuring they continue to be retained as advisors on the pressing legal issues facing clients even though many of them have the financial resources to hire any firm they want. “There is good work here and good lawyers here doing it. But everyone wants a bigger piece of the pie,” she says. “We have an advantage because we understand the local environment. We understand the political and business environment. We understand what this region is all about and we understand what it takes to do a project successfully in this province and region. That’s what differentiates us with firms in places like Calgary.”
The water boy
The water plays a significant role in Michael Simms personal and professional life. Simms is an accomplished sailor, representing Canada in the sport at the 1999 World University Games. In 2000, he finished second at the Canadian Olympic sailing trials and continues to be involved in the sailing scene as an appeal panel member for the country’s national sailing team. As a partner in the McInnes Cooper Halifax office, he’s the leader of the law firm’s energy and natural resources group with a particular focus on offshore and onshore oil and gas law. “It’s such a complex industry and there are so many different legal issues at play, that kind of variety makes for a very interesting practice area,” Simms says.
Simms interest in oil and gas law goes back to his university days before he entered law school. When the Haligonian was doing his undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, he worked with some professors who were looking at federal/provincial and international boundary conflicts, particularly in the area of natural resource development. When he entered law school he took a class in oil and gas law just as the offshore sector was on the upswing in Nova Scotia. “When I began practicing there was a lot going on and it had some fascinating issues for me in terms of resource allocation and that sort of thing,” Simms says. “It was an area that interested me right from the start.”
It is a little frustrating in the onshore context because there is a great deal of public mistrust of the oil and gas industry. That’s reflected in the fracking bans in existence.
Simms was called to the Nova Scotia bar in 2002 and the Alberta bar in 2006. His interest in oil and gas legal issues has taken him to Calgary where he worked for Shell Canada Limited as senior counsel before returning to Nova Scotia to join McInnes Cooper. He’s worked on numerous complex projects: joint venture arrangements, liquefied natural gas export and import facilities, pipeline and processing facilities, refinery projects, gas distribution systems and carbon capture and sequestration. These days he specializes in two broad areas, commercial law—joint operating agreements, farm-in/farm-out agreements, mergers and acquisitions—and regulatory issues such as complying with the requirements of the offshore petroleum boards and various applicable environmental statutes.
The advice Simms and his colleagues at McInnes Cooper provide on oil and gas issues is vital to clients as they attempt to navigate through a complex world of rules and regulations. “When an offshore well costs multiple hundreds of millions of dollars, everything is important. That’s especially so when the other non-controllable components like the geology, weather, world oil prices and all those other variables have an impact on the industry,” Simms says. “All of that creates complex legal issues that have to be managed. We’ve also got a very complex regulatory regime, especially in respect to environmental assessments and meeting the requirements of the offshore petroleum boards. Because they are complex they require careful negotiation as to who is responsible for what to make sure those issues are appropriately covered off.”
However, Atlantic Canada is a different operating environment than Alberta or Saskatchewan, where residents have a much longer history dealing with the oil and gas industry, particularly the onshore side of it. Simms points to the bans on hydraulic fracking in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador as one example of how different and challenging the operating environment is for oil and gas companies in this region, and the legal teams who are helping them navigate it.
“One of the big challenges is the fact that we don’t have a lot of experience in the onshore sector here and how the industry works. It is a little frustrating in the onshore context because there is a great deal of public mistrust of the oil and gas industry. That’s reflected in the fracking bans in existence,” Simms says. ”Some of the things that Atlantic Canadians are looking at with great skepticism are well accepted in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan. But everyone knows this is a cyclical industry. I suspect the push for exploration will come back. I don’t think we should count this region out in terms of oil and gas production.”
Making her mark
Dedication, hard work and superior communication skills have all helped Maureen Ryan become one of Atlantic Canada’s top oil and gas lawyers.
In fact, with a quarter of a century in legal experience at Stewart McKelvey law firm, Ryan has become a go-to advisor for clients looking to solve their commercial and corporate hassles. “It’s really important that oil and gas industry participants get legal advice to guide them through what they are doing,” says Ryan, who has been with the firm since 1990. “On the commercial side you have so many competing interests of the various players involved, whether it’s service providers, employees, the major providers, contractors—the list goes on and on. The number of people who have an interest tends to make it more complex as well. Lawyers can help clients identify and avoid issues, and when problems do arise we can help navigate solutions.”
To be a good lawyer you need to keep the big picture in mind and mix your excellence in the law with practical advice to help your clients navigate the risks they are facing.”
Ryan has proven she can provide that solid advice during her career. Her experience in commercial oil and gas law has led to her involvement in a wide range of matters— contract negotiation, buying and selling businesses, financing, and restructuring as well as providing general commercial advice on the day-to-day problems facing her clients. Her legal skills have seen her recognized as one of the Best Lawyers in Canada for natural resources law from 2011-2018, a nation-wide lawyer ranking that is peer reviewed, and in Lexpert Magazine as one of the publication’s ‘Top 40 lawyers under 40’in Canada in 2004.
Being involved in commercial and corporate law, brokering deals and negotiating contracts means Ryan’s work is rarely witnessed in public. She’s not a criminal lawyer working high profile cases that are on the public record and being covered in the press. That doesn’t mean the work is boring or unimportant. Because the offshore oil industry in the region involves many global players, companies like Statoil, Suncor, Husky and Shell, the stakes in the commercial issues Ryan deals with can be enormous.
Ryan, who got her undergraduate degree from Memorial University before moving on to York University’s Osgoode Hall to get her law degree, says the complex and challenging nature of the oil and gas work she does is what makes her job so interesting. “It’s intellectually challenging. Every day there is a slight twist on something you might have done before, so it’s constantly interesting and engaging,” she says. “It’s a great field to be into for communicating with people and helping them out.” She also agrees with Hickman that being an effective lawyer is more than just knowing the law. It’s just as important to know your client, what they do and what their interests are. “To be a good lawyer you need to keep the big picture in mind and mix your excellence in the law with practical advice to help your clients navigate the risks they are facing,” Ryan says.
Ryan’s rise as a top lawyer in Atlantic Canada comes even though she says she never had her sights set on a law career growing up. At Memorial she had an arts degree with a double major in math and political science. After graduating, she was looking for something that she would be interested in and also would give her the skills to get a job in Newfoundland and Labrador in the late 1980s. “When I told my dad I was going to law school, he said, ‘a law degree won’t hurt you.’” Her dad was right. When she started articling at Stewart McKelvey, that’s when she knew the law was the correct career choice and it’s also how she got exposed to oil and gas law. “When I came to Stewart McKelvey, it had an oil and gas practice. It was involved in the area. I got exposed to it through the firm and had the pleasure of working files with people here who were already in the industry. That’s how I got involved.”
Ryan plans to stay involved in the sector. She says Atlantic Canada is an interesting place to practice oil and gas law because the region’s activity is almost all offshore and that brings with it unique issues that you don’t find in jurisdictions like Alberta where all the activity is onshore. She also thinks the sector has a bright future in Newfoundland and Labrador, despite the headwinds it’s faced in recent years with low oil prices and reduced exploration activity. And as long as companies keep searching and producing oil in the province, clients will continue to need the legal skills of Ryan and her firm.
“I think oil and gas is going to continue to be a major part of the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador for the foreseeable future,” Ryan says. “Working with the industry players is great. It’s interesting. It’s fun. It’s nice to be involved. Both personally and at the firm level we have the expertise to continue to provide the excellent service we do to the industry, and I hope we continue to have the opportunity to do so.”