Regulatory uncertainty raising engineering anxiety

As B.C. proceeds with professional reliance reform, industry seeks clarity

Caroline Andrewes, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies British Columbia, says regulatory change has caused some anxiety within the profession. | Wendy D Photography

Engineering consulting companies and related associations are attentively watching the outcome of professional reliance reform in B.C.

With a final report submitted and a Professional Governance Act passed, the provincial government is gradually moving forward in its update of legislation and regulations that affect professional work on natural resource projects.

This reform carries with it operational implications for some of B.C.’s largest engineering firms and for how professional work is undertaken and regulated in the natural resource sector. 

“I think right now there’s a little bit of anxiety,” said Caroline Andrewes, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies British Columbia (ACEC-BC), which represents more than 90 firms.

“There’s some confusion about when regulations will be released and how those regulations will influence the practice of engineering, from the consulting engineering perspective in B.C.”

In October 2017, the provincial government announced it would review B.C.’s professional reliance model and the governance of qualified professionals working in B.C.’s natural resource sector – a commitment the BC NDP made in its confidence and supply agreement with the BC Green Party. 

A final report released last July offered 121 recommendations related to professional reliance in industries that employ some 51,000 professionals. A major one was that government establish an office of professional regulation and oversight to oversee professional legislation, develop governance best practices and regulate professional organizations as needed.

Such an office was established last fall in B.C.’s Professional Governance Act. It will have the ability to oversee five professional regulators, including Engineers and Geoscientists BC. 

A superintendent has yet to be appointed. Comments on the implementation of the act have just closed.

According to Andrewes, the language in the legislation is vague, and the power the office will ultimately wield is unclear. She says smaller firms in particular have concerns about the costs associated with transitioning to a new regulatory framework, with new filing, auditing and reporting requirements. Big firms, she said, are better equipped to handle major administrative changes, but will have to manage that change across a greater number of professionals.

Most of the companies on Business in Vancouver’s list of the biggest engineering firms in B.C. (see page 14) were unavailable to comment on professional reliance reform, or unwilling to weigh in on change that is still relatively new. 

Leslie Mihalik, general manager of B.C., Yukon and the Northwest Territories for Associated Engineering (BC) Ltd., said the reform will have a significant impact on the company’s business operations.

John Gamble, president and CEO of ACEC-Canada, noted the national organization, which represents nearly 500 independent consulting engineering companies, and its provincial and territorial associations across the country are watching reform unfold with great interest.

“Like a lot of these things, the devil's going to be in the details," said Len Murray, president and CEO of Klohn Crippen Berger, which ranks as B.C.'s 10th largest engineering firm with 98 B.C.-registered professional engineers. 

“We’re a reasonably big company, we’re quite sophisticated, we’ve got a good set of administrative functions here that are quite mature and I’m sure we’ll react to whatever’s needed," said Murray. “The thing for us is we need to make sure it’s a level playing field. Just because we happen to be resident in B.C., we don’t want to be disadvantaged."

All of the companies on BIV’s list have offices in B.C., though many are headquartered elsewhere. They compete for work with companies that don’t necessarily have a physical presence in the province, a situation ACEC-BC and its members have urged government to take into account as it develops regulations around professional reliance reform. 

To encourage fair competition, Andrewes said, regulations should apply to resident and non-resident firms alike. At the moment, whether they will is unclear.

“We don’t have any idea what the environment’s going to be like, what the climate’s going to be like, with an unnamed superintendent and undefined authority of that superintendent,” she said.

Professional reliance reform has been lauded by environmental groups as a much-needed way to bring greater transparency and accountability to the work conducted around natural resource development. 

Industry associations have suggested that existing regulators and professional codes of ethics largely achieve the operational results government is after. Others have argued moving from a professional model to a governmental one is inefficient, and could deter investment into B.C. •