Built to assess impacts
Following the adoption by MEPs of revisions to the EIA Directive, Josh Fothergill explains what the new legislation will mean for practitioners
On 12 March, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of accepting revisions to the EU Directive on environmental impact assessment (2011/92/EU) (EIA). As EIA is applied to up to 26,000 project proposals each year across the bloc, from bridges and ports to motorways and landfill sites, the changes could benefit environmental and economic performance across the continent.
Stuck in the past?
The revision process began in July 2009 with the publication of a report by the European commission into the effectiveness of the original Directive (85/337/EEC). The report concluded that, while EIA had improved the consideration of the environment in decision-making across Europe, changes were needed to improve consistency and to move beyond a procedural approach to one that also focused on quality.
The revision process (see below) started with public engagement and IEMA provided a leading voice by holding regular discussions with the commission. In October 2012, the commission presented at IEMA’s EIA Quality Mark forum, giving participants a preview of its proposed revisions. The commission’s proposals marked a sea-change in the tone of the revision process. It moved from being led by the commission to a political debate, resulting in a shift from a bottom-up engagement, which took account of practitioner views, to a top-down approach. The debate then often centred on the polarised views of environment versus development.
EIA Directive revision timeline:
This sparked confrontation when, in October 2013, MEPs narrowly backed amendments that would have required all unconventional hydrocarbon activity – such as shale gas exploration – to undergo mandatory EIA. This would have resulted in a more restrictive approach being applied to shale gas operations than to nuclear reactors. This amendment was deeply unpopular with a number of member states, including the UK, and risked stalling the revision of the Directive.
Parliament’s approach proved naive, as the council of ministers had sufficient votes to veto the amendment and, with limited time before the forthcoming European elections in May, MEPs appeared to find themselves on the backfoot in negotiating the final revisions.
The outcome is that the revised Directive fails to make any amendments to either annex I or annex II, so there is no direct reference to unconventional hydrocarbon exploration or extraction. As a result, there is considerable legal ambiguity around this area and this uncertainty fails to serve the needs of anyone. Developers are left to determine their own approach to EIA, while communities worry their environmental concerns will not be considered in the decision-making process.
Despite these issues, the revisions to the EIA Directive provide a “big win” for practitioners in terms of recognising and enhancing the fundamental role of environment and sustainability professionals. Under revisions to art.5(3), EIA reports – the revised term for environmental statements – must be prepared by “competent experts”. Furthermore, the powers of the EIA coordinator and topic leads are significantly extended with a new art.8(a). It requires all design modifications, additional mitigation measures and monitoring proposals related to significant adverse effects to be incorporated into the consent. Art.8(a) also requires member states to ensure developers deliver these measures during implementation.
This means that environment and sustainability professionals will no longer have to hope the consenting authority picks up and includes the mitigation they have identified in the consent. The change will also make it difficult to remove design elements aimed at protecting the environment post-consent, during detailed design, which is likely to extend the role for EIA practitioners in this part of the development process. Their role in identifying “alternatives” also has the potential to be strengthened.
Although annex 4 still limits consideration by practitioners to alternatives “studied by the developer”, an expanded definition of alternatives includes reference to project design. So there is now a clear legislative basis to include a description of the main changes resulting from the pre-application iterative design process in the EIA report, including a description of why the preferred approach was chosen.
IEMA raised concerns over the commission’s original proposals on screening, which would have resulted in more than 100,000 screening reports and decisions each year in the UK alone. Thankfully, the final amendments retain the use of thresholds and criteria determined by member states related to annex 2 projects, which should ensure only those projects with the potential to generate significant environmental impact require screening.
Nonetheless, for developments covered by the revised screening process there are substantial changes. Developers will be required to submit a screening report that is compliant with the newly introduced annex IIA, which, on the face of it, looks like a mini-EIA. Competent authorities will need to provide enhanced explanation of their screening decisions and have to take into account developer-proposed design measures and mitigation.
IEMA believes the revisions considerably extend this obligation rather than streamline it. However, the changes should act to improve the quality of screening throughout the UK, which has on occasion been found wanting under the existing planning system.
Another key aim of the revision has been to improve how EIA interacts with other assessments required by EU legislation. This is tackled through amendments to art.2, which will ensure member states provide either coordinated procedures or have a single joint procedure to comply with the directives on EIA and habitats. The wording in the text related to the application of this provision is weak, however, requiring only a member state to “endeavour to coordinate assessments”.
The revisions in this area fall far short of early ambitions, which aimed to integrate EIA with strategic environmental assessment (2001/42/EC), the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU), the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) and numerous topic specific areas. While the revisions do not prevent wider integration, it is clear that any streamlining, beyond the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), will be down to initiatives by individual member states, leaving no consistent way to measure progress between countries.
The revisions provide useful clarity on the focus of the EIA Directive in terms of environmental topics. The main changes are included in art.3, which expands the topics that should be considered in each EIA, even if they are later scoped out. The new topics are:
- biodiversity – expanding on flora and fauna;
- human health – replacing human beings;
- land; and
- the project’s vulnerability to accidents and disaster.
Although climate change is still not directly referred to in art.3, the need to consider it is confirmed through revisions to annex IV. This will require every EIA report to consider “the impact of the project on climate change... and the vulnerability of the project to climate change”. This is a positive move and will help build on IEMA’s leading work in this area (see iema.net/eia-cc, for example), which helped provide the framework for guidance published by the commission in April 2013.
What may be the most significant change in topic focus, however, is rather hidden on first reading of the text and relates to assessment factors in the efficient use of natural resources. Annex IV is amended to require the project description to include information on a development’s operational energy use and the quantities and types of waste likely to be produced during construction and operation. The consideration of cumulative effects is similarly amended to ensure their assessment is conducted to take into account “any existing environmental problems related to... the use of natural resources”.
Unfortunately, the commission’s original proposal to include consideration of ecosystem services in the revised Directive has been dropped. This does not necessarily rule out their inclusion, but the omission of a specific reference to ecosystem services will disappoint many EIA practitioners who believe the inclusion of such services would set the context for substantive changes in EIA practice over the next 10 years. The development of ecosystem services assessment in EIA is now likely to be led by the assessments conducted under the Equator Principles – the risk management framework adopted by financial institutions to determine, assess and manage the environmental and social risks in projects – rather than by European practice.
One troubling element in the final agreement is the timeframe for transposing the revised Directive into domestic legislation. It is common practice to allow two years for countries to develop their own regulations. The three-year period provided to transpose the amendments to EIA rules is disappointing, given the revisions mainly build upon existing processes, rather than developing new ones. The timeframe means the UK need not implement the revisions until spring 2017.
Even then, many projects will continue to be assessed under the existing Directive’s rules for around 18 months. This is because the transitional rules allow any project scoped under the existing Directive to be exempt from the new requirements when its application is submitted for development consent.
In the case of nationally significant infrastructure projects in England and Wales, the period between scoping and application is generally between six and 18 months. As such, the majority of the £310 billion of investment required to deliver the 550 projects in Infrastructure UK’s national plan may well be assessed without the benefits of the revised requirements, such as those relating to climate, accident and disaster resilience.
The final word
Although the revision process itself has left much to be desired, the agreed amendments do provide a useful contribution to the advancement of EIA. The revised Directive does, for example, correct what was arguably its biggest flaw in the existing regime: the absence of mandatory monitoring for significant negative effects.
The introduction of monitoring will provide practitioners and academics with the prospect of substantial new data on the efficacy of EIA, ensuring future practice is driven by real world feedback and providing the basis for continuous improvement in EIA practice through the 2020s. Also, in providing environment and sustainability professionals with more control, the revisions have given EIA every chance of continuing to deliver real value in the future.
However, the success of the revised Directive will depend on how it is transposed. The focus of IEMA members must now turn to ensuring the implementing regulations, across Europe, deliver effective EIA in practice.
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