Pressures for Change in Environmental Auditing and in the Role of the Internal Auditor

Article excerpt

Early environmental legislation focused on punishing the polluter and stopping the pollution with restraining orders and abatement procedures (Rittenberg et al., 1992). As a response, companies' primary objective in performing the first environmental audits was compliance with regulations and the avoidance of regulatory sanctions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rethinking its approach to compliance and enforcement and the role of environmental auditing. Rather than the prescriptive command and control approach, the EPA is allowing more flexibility in the way in which corporations manage environmental risks as long as environmental goals are achieved. This more collaborative approach provides management with an incentive to design environmental systems, which are cost effective, emphasize prevention, and continuously improve. The initial emphasis on assessing technical compliance led management to staff environmental audit teams with technical personnel such as scientists and engineers. The new emphasis on evaluating systems suggests a greater role for internal auditors who possess the necessary training and experience.

Several other changes have also motivated companies to reevaluate their approach to environmental auditing. One change is the consistent trend toward more stringent and comprehensive environmental legislation. For example, the EPA recently recommended tighter national standards for air quality (Cushman, 1996). Due to several highly publicized environmental disasters and the continual enactment of new and more comprehensive laws, an increasingly aware and skeptical public are prompting corporate management to reassess what it means to be environmentally responsible. Investors, observing the massive cleanup costs, litigation, and reputational damage resulting from environmental accidents such as Three Mile Island, Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez or the Bhopal chemical disaster, may favor companies that take preventative measures to minimize these downside risks. Interest in an effective environmental management system, which includes environmental auditing, is also motivated by the more stringent environmental standards in other countries. Corporations may soon find that developing such a system and meeting these more stringent standards are requirements of conducting international business. The EPA is currently participating in the development of the most comprehensive environmental quality standards ever undertaken, ISO 14000. These standards, developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), resulted in part from the GATT talks which sought to promote free trade while establishing a global commitment to a clean environment. To obtain ISO 14000 certification, corporations must maintain environmental management systems and monitor these systems with environmental auditing. The EPA and other governmental agencies will consider a company's certification and compliance with these standards in enforcement actions. Furthermore, these uniform international environmental standards, and an organization's response to them, could potentially provide a basis for society to compare firms' sensitivity to environmental issues. In light of these new risks and opportunities, management needs to reevaluate how it approaches environmental auditing.

The purpose of this article is threefold. First, we identify and discuss changes in the risks companies face in managing environmental issues. Specifically, the discussion focuses on the new environmental standard ISO 14000 and changes in direction at the EPA. Second, we envision the implications of these changes on management's approach to monitoring these risks, and third, we suggest steps useful in adapting to these changes and encourage a reexamination of the internal auditor's role.


Historical Background

The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and several pieces of environmental legislation ensued in that decade, including The Clean Air Act of 1970, The Clean Water Act of 1972, and The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. …