Les Leyne: Carbon audit starts storm of criticism

Auditor general John Doyle holds an edge going into any public argument with the government.

People are predisposed to mistrust government. And any response government has to an audit sounds defensive, by definition. The auditee is behind right from the start.

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People like the idea of independent watchdogs blowing the whistle on big, know-it-all governments. So they’re inclined to accept that there’s a problem, rather than buy the explanation everything’s fine.

And Speaker Bill Barisoff booted a lot of the government’s credibility by suppressing Doyle’s audit into the claim of public-sector carbon neutrality.

He delayed it for a day, out of some bogus concern about “breach of parliament” (sic), which only heightened suspicion.

But there are still some problems with buying into Doyle’s outright dismissal of the carbon-neutrality claim.

Discount the B.C. Liberals’ defensive attitude all you like. But the response of the Pacific Carbon Trust — the Crown corporation at the centre of the program — gives you pause.

Its board is chaired by former deputy minister Chris Trumpy, a respected and non-partisan career executive who steers clear of publicity. But he took the remarkable step Wednesday of firing back at Doyle with both barrels.

He said the lead auditor from Doyle’s office stated at the outset of the process, before any work had begun, that he did not believe the projects in question were credible.

He said none of the three auditor-general staff were accredited to conduct audits in the new-to-B.C. field of carbon offsets.

Doyle seems to have recognized that by retaining an expert consultant. But Trumpy said that expert quit after realizing the audit was heading in a direction inconsistent with his advice.

He also said the audit team didn’t appear to take into account numerous pieces of evidence.

His report looked at two major projects that make up the bulk of the claimed carbon offsets and found the accounting of the credits to be highly suspect.

One was the preservation of thousands of hectares of forest in the Kootenays and the other was an innovative drilling procedure undertaken by Encana that reduces flaring and emissions.

Doyle rejected the validity of both.

Trumpy questioned how Doyle could use non-accredited people to reach a conclusion that’s inconsistent with his own consultant’s and contrary to eight other opinions, including four independent verifiers.

The projects were certified and validated by an assortment of different certified outfits. But Doyle rejected all those conclusions.

The audit turned into an angry, bitter argument that stretched over 15 months. Doyle noted he has never before been subjected to an overt, orchestrated letter-writing campaign by vested interests trying to dissuade him from his findings.

Trumpy has a response to that — he asked for it.

The board chairman said when the draft reports came out, the experts thought the conclusions challenged their integrity and could affect their credibility and reputation.

So they engaged directly with Doyle.

That’s why 20 letters were sent to him challenging findings, citing perceived errors and raising concerns about using irrelevant standards.

None of that had any impact. The hell-raising auditor general went his own way, as he so often does.

The main reason his audit will be so well-received is the widespread suspicion about the Pacific Carbon Trust’s business model.

It takes in millions from public-sector outfits and doles it out to private companies that can prove they are curbing emissions and can’t do it without the financial support they get from selling the credit to the trust.

But it boils down to schools and hospitals handing over badly needed funds to an agency that dispenses it mostly to private corporations.

In many people’s minds, the system simply doesn’t work.

Doyle’s report on two fairly complex cases funded by the trust will likely cement that impression.

But there are a few remaining doubts about an audit where bias was claimed to be on display right at the outset.

It’s odd that an expert consultant walked off the job over a difference of opinion. And it’s curious that so many international experts raised so much hell about the auditor general’s stubborn belief that the projects aren’t credible.

More to come.

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