Member Profile: Chris O'Brien MIEMA, CEnv

27th October 2017

Senior permitting officer, EUETS, CRC & ESOS, Natural Resources Wales,

Why did you become an environment and sustainability professional?

My personal interest is in the environment and politics. I find it fascinating how laws and policies are intensely influenced by institutions or people in authority.

What was your first job in this field?

I was a graduate environmental engineer at the Tata Steel Works in Port Talbot; the coalface of environmental management, almost literally.

How did you get your first role?

I sent my CV to the environment department at the steelworks, which needed cover for a lady on maternity leave. I got an interview, and was offered the job. After that, I was encouraged to apply for the graduate scheme, which I then joined in 2007.

What does your current role involve?

I work for Natural Resources Wales, permitting and regulating the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, the Carbon Reduction Commitment Scheme and the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme. There are only two of us covering Wales so it’s quite busy, but the schemes are the frontline of the EU effort to reduce climate change, so it’s a pretty rewarding job.

How has your role progressed?

I started off working in environmental management, ISO 14001, applying permit conditions in the steelworks, before moving on to waste management, but the elephant in the room was always climate change. In 2012, Tata Steel paid for me to do a master’s degree in environmental dynamics and climate change, which opened the door to work in carbon accounting and reduction as well as helping towards my Full Member application to IEMA and my Chartership. I joined NRW as a climate change specialist, but because of my varied background I also dabble in EPR (Environmental Permitting Regulations) work.

What’s the best part?

I enjoy inspection visits as it’s sometimes tricky to understand an entire installation just from reading their permit. I like to see things firsthand. It also helps to build good relationships. The more conversation between regulator and operator the better.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I find the enforcement and sanctions part the hardest. Our purpose is to help everyone comply with the regulations, and if we get to the point where we have to take enforcement action or apply financial penalties it feels like we’ve failed; but it’s part of the job.

What was the last development event you attended?

An IEMA-organised seminar on the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Environment Act, two groundbreaking pieces of legislation passed in Wales. The Wales Region is putting on some great events.

What did you bring back to your job?

A headache. Although groundbreaking, they aren’t simple pieces of legislation, because they establish processes that are important to sustainable development. I’m accustomed to very specific actions and procedures.

What are the key skills for your job?

Critical analysis is the most important, followed closely by communication skills. Several regulations allow the regulator discretion over whether companies are penalised or not. Its important to be able to step back, look at the history of the issue, check any precedence, potential environmental harm and make an objective decision.

Where is the profession going?

Short term, I don’t have a positive outlook, with Brexit looming and the anti-science movement getting up some worrying momentum. With carbon budgets and the Welsh Acts, it seems there is still a progressive momentum on environment, but it needs organisations like IEMA to keep pressure on the legislators, reminding them of their obligations.

Where would you like to be in five years?

In Lake Tahoe, setting up the US carbon cap and trade system and snowboarding in my spare time. How often are national elections in the US?

What advice would you give to someone entering the profession?

To be a master of sustainability you have to be a jack of all trades. Keep learning about as many different aspects of the profession as possible. If you write procedures for an environmental management system, make sure you use IEMA’s webinars and events to keep in the loop with environmental impact assessment, ecology, waste regulations, environmental permitting, community projects, climate change science – as much as you can find. Read the same story in different newspapers. The more you understand, the better placed you’ll be to bring people onboard with the environmental agenda.

How do you use the IEMA Skills Map?

I use it primarily for mentoring. The Wales Region runs workshops for people looking to progress to full membership, and a key component is meeting the competencies required. It’s surprising how many members think they have big gaps in their experience or learning, but realistically a sustainability professional may have many different skill sets. And just because you don’t get paid to volunteer, doesn’t mean key aspects of that activity don’t contribute to your skills.

If you could go back in history, who would you like to meet?

Charles Darwin; fairly predictable for a biologist!

What motivates you?

I’m motivated by the news more than anything else. One of the books on my MSc reading list was Collapse by Jared Diamond. I think this, and his Guns, Germs & Steel should be required reading for sustainability professionals. You see links between environmental degradation, socio-economics and global conflicts.

What would be your personal motto?

Leave it better than you found it. Not a bad mindset for any environmentalist. If my partner Jess is reading this, that also applies to my car! Stop leaving pork scratchings packets behind.

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