Interview with María José Rubial Fernandez

Coordinator of the EFG Panel of Experts on Soil Protection

EFG’s Panels of Experts (PE) have been set up to provide high quality advice and information to the European institutions, to international NGO’s and to other global professional associations. EFG has currently 10 Panels of Experts active in the fields of CCS, Education, Geological Heritage, Geotechnics, Geothermal Energy, Hydrogeology, Natural Hazards, Minerals, Oil & Gas and Soil Protection. The Panels involve more than 200 voluntary experts from over 20 different countries and all aim at emphasising the importance of geology to society, the benefits of incorporating geological advice and to promote the importance of the geoscientific profession.

To raise awareness about the existence of these Panels of Experts, EFG is presenting its coordinators in a new interview series. In March 2018, we have talked to María José Rubial Fernández, the coordinator of the Panel on Soil Protection.

María José Rubial Fernández

Coordinator of the EFG Panel of Experts on Soil Protection since 2015

“My areas of expertise include Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services Assessment, Environmental Liability (ELD) & Environmental Risk Assessment & Management (QERA, ERA, RA), Soil Protection | Site investigation and environmental assessment of contaminated lands and Groundwater resources.
With 15 years of national and international experience, I have participated in numerous environmental projects that relate to a wide array of applications. I would like to emphasize those in which, along with large leading companies in various industrial sectors (Oil & Gas, Metal Mining, Steel, Cement and Aggregates), I had the opportunity to understand the origin of their Environmental Risks and their potential consequences for the receiving Environment and their brand Reputation. My job is to help these companies in identifying, characterizing, and managing their environmental risks, developing ad hoc specific methodologies, within the European Framework for Environmental Liability.”

About your field of expertise:


Which factors are particularly challenging for the protection of Europe’s soils and is the current EU legislation addressing these challenges in an appropriate way?

“Nearly all the food, fuel and fibres used by humans are produced on soil. Soil is also essential for water and ecosystem health. It is second only to the oceans as a global carbon sink, with an important role in the potential slowing of climate change. Soil functions depend on a multitude of soil organisms, which makes soil an important part of our biodiversity (JRC, 2012[1])”.

So … one can conclude that the soil is not only a basic natural resource, but a basic natural pillar and a provider of essential services on which social well-being depends on (e.g., the supply of materials and energy and the regulation of natural processes such as erosion and climate change).

In terms of perception of likelihood and impact, soil degradation is among the most pressing environmental challenges facing us, together with other environmental risks such as biodiversity loss, water pollution and extreme weather events.

However, despite all this, still underlies a systemic challenge for the EU legislation, and at the individual country level. This challenge is to understand, in greater depth, the dependencies on this resource and what the loss and degradation of this fundamental pillar entails in terms of interconnection between different risk categories such as environmental risk, financial risk and social risk.

We are still needing and waiting for the “Soil Framework Directive”, pending since more than 10 years. Now, when we live in a world of overwhelming data, from many stakeholders, we should gain momentum to enhance soil protection from a sustainable management perspective.

My thought and my feeling are that the protection of this resource is not being addressed adequately from the EU legislation.

How do you see the future role of geoscientists in your field of expertise, for example 20 years ahead from now?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future” (Niels H. D. Bohr). I finished my studies 15 years ago, which sounds not a very long time ago, and I have seen (and see now) fast changes in the way we work.

How technological innovations and the use of data are going to drive our work and life is something unpredictable. Geo-Localization, data analysis and machine learning have given rise to a new professional profile unthinkable a few years ago. Companies and institutions need to complete their organizational charts with experts in these disciplines to predict situations applicable to any field of action.

We live in a changing world and we need from continuous adaptation. I have not a clue on the future of geoscientists, but I am sure we (they) will play a critical role in soil protection. Only Geoscientists can predict the behaviour of Earth systems and the Universe.


About your Panel of Experts:


Which role can the EFG Panel of Experts on Soil Protection play in the current EU policy context?

We can provide a core of expertise that relates to soils and soil protection from different perspectives, as the panel is formed by professionals from the private, academic and investigation sectors. We respond with advice when appropriate opportunities arise from changes in policy and regulation.

How would you define the added value of collaborating with experts from different European countries?

The added value lies in the combination of the different realities that each one of us lives in our country that leads to different professional initiatives worth to share. Cultural differences/perspectives are also an added value to our work.

What is your Panel of Experts currently working on? What are your further plans for 2018?

We have recently participated in the external review of the second order drafts of the thematic assessment report on land degradation and restoration and the Europe regional assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem , as well as the first order drafts of their Summaries for Policymakers is fast approaching (IPBES;

We are now working in a new agenda which includes the possibility of pushing towards the long-waited Soil Framework Directive in collaboration with other institutions with the development of a global platform that encompasses the EU. But this is now under evaluation…

Is there anything EFG could do to support your Panel of Experts?

New proposal initiatives are welcome. We would also need more media diffusion and support in coordination between different panels activities. Contacts for collaborations with other EU institutions would be also desirable so we have access to new EU initiatives where we can collaborate.

Your Panel involves less women than men and in general women are underrepresented in the STEM sector. What needs to be done to improve the gender balance in earth sciences?

I think that women are slowly closing the gender gap in Science, I can see it in my working environment where a new generation of young professionals (both men and women) are more on building capacity than on gender gap focused. However, still a big effort from all the stakeholders in pursuing a goal of gender parity.

From my perspective, women, not only in Science, find our first biggest obstacle when we finish our career and enter the work force and, once at that point, we find the second one in accessing to managing positions. I would say that this starts with education (and that is for sure), but the biggest effort should be made in our professional environments.


About yourself:


Since when do you lead your Panel of Experts?

Since 2015. I am a member of the panel since 2013.

What inspired you to become a geologist? Why did you choose the field of soil protection?

It was by chance. I didn’t have finish my degree yet when I had the opportunity to conduct a professional internship in a multinational consulting firm, within the contaminated soil department, that’s how I started in this field of competence.

What do you currently do in your job?

After more than 10 years of conducting studies on contaminated soils, now I am focused on prevention mechanisms, such as quantitative environmental risk assessments focused on the development of strategic prevention plans (company investments to prevent and protect the environment). I am also developing and implementing methodologies for economic valuation of soil resource dependencies, focused on the agricultural and industrial sector. This approach gives me a new perspective and provides me with a much more effective tool in terms of soil protection.

[1] The State of Soil in Europe. A contribution of the JRC to the European Environmental Agency’s Environment State and Outlook Report – SOER 2010 (2012).

More information about the EFG Panels of Experts