Speak up on professional reliance: Outsourcing environmental protection doesn’t work

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Posted in:  Wildsight

Should we outsource the protection of our environment? Keeping our rivers and lakes clean, protecting wild creatures and making sure our ecosystems stay intact are some of the most important functions of our government. But in BC, since the early 2000s, our government has handed over much of the responsibility for environmental protection to various professionals — professionals hired and paid by mining, logging and other industrial companies.

This outsourcing of responsibility to professionals with a fundamental conflict of interest is called professional reliance. Right now, until January 19th, the BC Government wants your opinion on professional reliance. This is your chance to let them know that it isn’t working, that you want strong, clear laws to protect our environment, monitored and enforced by professional public servants.

Read on to learn more about professional reliance or jump below for details on the BC Government’s survey.

The trouble with professional reliance

Suppose you’re opening a mine. Before professional reliance, you’d be subject to rules and regulations, enforced by professionals in government and designed to keep our environment safe from the potentially disastrous impacts of your mine. But now, you’d hire a bevy of consultants who’d prepare reports on how you’d keep the environment safe, aiming for the vague objectives outlined in our laws.

These consultants, though they are regulated through professional bodies, work for you. If you suggest measures that are a little cheaper, but might have a higher environmental risk, your consultants have to make a decision about how much risk is acceptable. These decisions are tricky. These are often grey areas.

But there’s always a bias because you’re paying these professionals. They know that if you aren’t happy with their decision, you can always hire someone else. Word gets around about which firms make life easier for a mining company. There’s a bit of a race to the bottom. And the finish line in that race? Maybe things are a little bit worse — or maybe you end up with the Mount Polley disaster.

In theory, professionals are accountable through their professional association. The sad reality is that it is exceedingly rare for a professional to be held liable for environmental damages.

From this basic conflict of interest, environmental protections are weakened — and we all lose.

It doesn’t have to be this way

So if professional reliance isn’t working, where do we go from here?

Step one is to reduce our reliance on professionals and increase the capacity and power of public servants to protect our environment. Since the early 2000s, government capacity in this area has been cut by an estimated 25%. We need a strong, professional public service whose sole focus is environmental protection.

We need to bring back strong laws and regulations, with measures that can be objectively enforced — and we need a strong, professional public service to do the on-the-ground research needed to develop regulations that are truly protective of our environment.

In cases where we may continue to rely on professionals, accountability is key. That means real liability for professionals whose decisions harm our environment, with power in the hands of the public to hold professionals to account. And whistleblowers need protections so that bad practices can come to light. If professional reliance will be used, we must restore public trust in professionals.

Finally, we need to make sure decisions are made out in the open, with proper consultation of First Nations and opportunities for public input. When professionals make decisions, there is rarely a chance for anyone else to be heard.

Stand up and be counted: The professional reliance survey

Until Friday, January 19th, you can make your views heard on professional reliance, as part of the BC Government’s review of the system. There will be changes made; let’s make sure those changes go far enough. The government’s short survey shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete.

Complete the survey here.

After the first question on your level of knowledge, you’ll be asked whether you agree or disagree with some statements. Wildsight strongly disagrees with all five of these statements. Our position is that:

  • Qualified professionals are not being used appropriately
  • Resource development is being given too much weight relative to environmental protection
  • There is little transparency
  • Professional association oversight is weak
  • Government oversight is weak

For the next two questions, you can write briefly in your own words about what’s working and what isn’t. Here are some points to consider:

What wrong with the model

  • BC’s professional reliance model goes too far in outsourcing environmental protection.
  • The conflict of interest for professionals who are paid by industry is fundamental and can’t be entirely regulated away.
  • Professional reliance has resulted in harm to the environment all over the province and broken public trust in environmental protection and resource management.
  • Our environmental protection laws are too weak, with vague objectives instead of the enforceable rules we need.

What needs to change

  • We need strong, measurable and enforceable laws that protect our environment.
  • We need more capacity in our professional public service to develop and enforce laws and to monitor industry.
  • If professionals are used, their role must be strictly defined, with measurable environmental standards they must meet. Professionals must be liable for environmental damages and accountable to the public.
  • Whistleblowers need legal protections to speak up when things go wrong.
  • The public and First Nations need a chance to review and have input into industry plans.

Please take a few minutes now to speak up for strong environmental protection in BC through the online survey.

If you want even more information, West Coast Environment Law has an excellent in-depth review that goes into greater detail on the changes that are needed.

Thank you for standing up for strong environmental protection in BC!