The NDP government has ordered a review of B.C.’s controversial “professional reliance” system, which uses experts hired by industry to assess the environmental risks associated with logging, mining and other projects.
Environment Minister George Heyman said in an interview that the province previously relied on its own professionals to protect the public interest. But the former Liberal government shifted much of that responsibility to professionals hired by project proponents — a change that critics say creates conflicts of interest and undermines public trust.
Heyman said that reviewing the system is a top priority for the NDP government, but he gave no timeline for how long it will take or when it will be completed.
The NDP and the B.C. Green Party committed to the study in their deal to overthrow the B.C. Liberal government. Premier John Horgan, in his mandate letters to ministers, directed Heyman to undertake the review “to ensure the legal rights of First Nations are respected, and the public’s expectation of a strong, transparent process is met.”
The Liberals, now in Opposition, declined to make anyone available to comment on the review. The party defended the use of industry-paid professionals while in office, but in its final throne speech before losing power pledged “to protect the health and safety of B.C.’s unique environment by reviewing our system of professional reliance to ensure public confidence is maintained.”
Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau said the review is urgently needed to restore trust in the government’s ability to regulate industry and protect the environment.
She said, however, that the current system isn’t just a problem for the environment. “It undermines the interests of industry because communities stop trusting government and they stop trusting industry and industrial projects, because of the growing perception of the fox-is-watching-the-henhouse situation that we have.”
The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria concluded in a 2015 report that “much of B.C.’s deregulation goes too far in handing over what are essentially matters of public interest to those employed by industry.”
Calvin Sandborn, the centre’s legal director, noted that the shift was accompanied by cuts to the civil service. “They replaced government enforcement of the law with allowing companies to hire their own experts to make government decisions, basically,” he said.
Sandborn said any review should examine all the professional reliance schemes across natural resource sectors. “It’s going to take some time because [the Liberals] fundamentally transformed the system of delegating government authority to hired parties working for companies.”
B.C.’s auditor general concluded in a 2016 report on the mining sector that B.C. lacked policies and procedures to oversee its “increased dependence on qualified professionals employed by industry to do the work needed to meet government’s various mandates.”
The auditor recommended, among other things, that the government put controls in place to make sure there is no “undue influence on qualified professionals by industry” and that industry has to act on a professional’s advice.
At the time, the Liberal government bristled at the suggestion it was relying too heavily on professionals paid for by industry. It argued in its response to the auditor general that the province has relied on qualified professionals in the mining industry for decades. “The long-standing model used in engineering throughout the world relies on professional engineers to prepare and seal designs; government then reviews these plans.”
The Liberal government also noted that the public relies on professionals in many areas and that they are regulated by their governing bodies or associations.
If professionals fail to follow their association’s code of ethics or standard of conduct, they face disciplinary action, the government said. “[The auditor’s] concern about over-reliance of qualified professionals is a criticism of professional bodies’ ability to regulate their professions.”
Heyman said his review will include a look at the associations and governing bodies to see whether they have proper standards in place and are able to hold professionals to account for their decisions or advice.
“I think the public needs to have confidence that reviews and activities of people protecting their interests will be ethical, transparent and in their interest,” he said.