Professional Reliance is a fancy word that means nothing to most people — precisely what was intended when the former BC Liberal government introduced this scheme more than a decade ago. But change the name to Industry Self-Regulation and people start paying attention.
Up to now, environmental and industrial regulation in B.C. could be captured by a simple phrase: “let industry do it.” That’s been the guiding principle in environmental and natural resource regulation — corporations approving their own resource plans, while monitoring and certifying their own industrial activities.
But then in December, the BC NDP government announced a review of the professional reliance model, providing a timely opportunity under a new government to correct many of the outstanding problems associated with self-regulation.
The BC Liberal legacy
Shortly after taking office, the BC Liberal government rolled out an experiment in self-regulation with a shocking goal — to eliminate one third of industrial and environmental regulations, with a similar reduction in the size of the public service.
The main role of Professional Reliance is to undermine the power of environmental regulations and government agencies, to reduce the “regulatory burden” on industry.
How did the experiment go? A 2015 study by the Environmental Law Centre at UVic states: “We conclude 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. Proponents should not be decision makers for matters involving the weighing and balancing of multiple, often competing, environmental and social values. This raises irresolvable conflicts of interest and a lack of democratic accountability for many resource management decisions.”
The results from Professional Reliance are also shocking: Today, the number of forest industry inspections are less than one third of the number conducted before Professional Reliance. The number of logging truckloads checked is one-fifth the number checked in the 1990s. Mine inspections declined by almost 80 per cent in 2003, recovering somewhat after the Mount Polley disaster, but remain at 15 per cent below 2001 levels.
The Forest Practices Board reports that 23 per cent of inspected resource roads in 2017 were structurally unsafe. Only 38 per cent met legal requirements. Forty per cent of bridges in a 2014 report did not follow the rules, while 15 per cent had serious safety issues.
In 2015, 60 per cent of operations inspected by the Ministry of Environment (MOE) failed to comply with the Environmental Management Act, while 23 per cent of sites showed major non-compliance issues.
In 2015, Teck Coal was found to breach regulations 79 per cent of the time over 58 inspections. Teck Metals was found to be out of compliance 58 per cent of the time over 12 inspections.
While the former government was busy unravelling government regulations, natural resource and environment ministries lost 1,500 positions, or 23 per cent of their workforce. Government spending on natural resource management and environment was cut by 30 per cent.
The tragic legacy of this Professional Reliance model includes Mount Polley, the Shawnigan Lake contaminated soil site and the Testalinden Dam breach, among others.
The public solution
Our provincial government needs to take back its leadership role and public responsibility for resource and environmental stewardship.
Corporations can no longer be allowed to certify their own resource and land-use plans, sign off their own engineering projects, or oversee environmental monitoring of their activities. It’s a conflict of interest, pure and simple.
Professionals should be used to certify projects in their field of expertise, but these positions must not be beholden to the companies they certify, by direct contract or employment. All professional certifications should be monitored by ministry staff, who should question certifications when necessary.
Government ministries must be free to oversee industry approval processes as needed, and to increase random compliance and enforcement inspections in the field. Ministry officials must have the authority to order amendments to resource plans and issue orders in the field to correct non-compliance by permit holders.
Doing this will require more professional ministry staff to enforce regulations and process permit applications. The public expects government to ensure that industry operations are carried out safely and responsibly. That’s the price we pay to live in a civil society that protects the public interest before corporate profit.