Professional Reliance

Eric Depenau | Contributor

(West Coast Environmental Law)

This week we ask, “has the public’s trust in professionals been eroded?” A massive question and one that has been top of mind for some as the provincial government, under fresh NDP leadership, has announced a review of the professional reliance model (PRM) used in BC’s natural resource industries. The current Environment Minister, George Heyman, says the government is undergoing a review to ensure “the public interest is protected when it comes to resource management in B.C.” No one questions that the proper stewardship of provincial resources is important. However, what is really being questioned in this review is the ability of private industry experts to apply regulations in an honest and accountable way. It comes down to a crisis of confidence. If we can’t trust the professionals to look out for our collective interests then who are we supposed to trust? The government seems to believe that people do not trust the private sector to uphold regulations due to the perception that companies can be bought with favorable tax policies, permits, and so on. While a clear solution to this perceived mistrust has not been presented by the NDP, the approach being taken has received dual criticism for helping to support a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and for what is expected to be a wave of new regulations and public sector hiring.

Under the PRM, industries hire qualified professionals, contracting companies, consultants, and inspectors who review and certify various construction codes, environmental regulations, and other standards. Examples of these professionals include foresters, biologists, engineers and scientists to name only a few of the professions in question. Under the PRM, resource companies are the ones responsible for hiring and paying experts to do the specialized work they require and the companies are in the end responsible for compliance with the provincial laws. The flaw in the PRM that has been identified by the NDP is that the public’s trust has been eroded by industry disasters such as train derailments, oil spills, pollution, and in a recent and infamous case, a mine tailing pond failure. It is important to note that this review seems to be based on addressing public perception rather than a legal grounding in negligence or criminal activity. Since the public perceives the private sector as having failed to maintain a high enough standard this review will likely see government justify a higher level of intervention in the natural resource industry. This intervention might result in an increase in regulation or the re-regulation of various industry practices, the removal of the entrepreneurial companies that fulfil the regulatory compliance role currently, and the introduction of publicly hired civil servants to fill these roles.

Shifting away from the public reliance model would serve as an attack on industry. Essentially, the powers that be would be affirming the judgement that the private sector is too ripe for corruption, too hungry for development, and too influenced by partisanship to be allowed to play such an active role in the regulation of British Columbia’s natural resources. The expected solution, an infusion of government intervention and the subsequent hiring spree of civil servants to pick up the private sectors tasks will only serve to harm business, inflate the costs of a government already mired in questions of fiscal responsibility, and quash entrepreneurial spirit. Moreover, this intervention is likely to have a negligible effect on the occurrence of environmental disasters. The bottom line is simple, the private sector is not inherently corrupt and the public sector is not free of bias. Accidents, as horrible as they are, happen despite the best efforts of all involved.

Interestingly the review of PRM is contained in both Minister Heyman’s mandate letter, as well as the Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Green Caucus leading some to wonder if this review would have happened at all had the confidence and supply agreement not been struck between the two parties. Nevertheless Minister Heyman says the review will include recommendations with feedback from a variety of stakeholders including industry, Indigenous groups, business, and the public, and that the review is expected to be completed by the spring of 2018. Only time will tell if a responsible solution to the public’s distrust will be presented by the government, or if BC’s natural resource professionals are about to face the effects of a trial by the masses.