From ocean to urban: How EIA differs between industries

13th July 2022

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James Malone

James Malone reflects on the differences in scope and number of stakeholders between EIA in two industries – marine telecommunications and terrestrial urban development

Before starting my current role in terrestrial environmental impact assessment (EIA), I worked in the marine telecommunications industry. Telecoms and EIA consultancy are two very different sectors. The telecoms industry is a key provider of fibre-optic (FO) systems, the backbone of the internet, providing around 97% of the bandwidth currently consumed. These systems are typically international in nature, connecting several countries. National systems are focused on connecting more remote regions of their country, where terrestrial systems are not appropriate or less cost-effective.

Operating along similar routes to the early telegraph systems, marine FO systems are laid on or in the seafloor, depending on the depth of the water. At depths of greater than 1,000 metres, the cable is laid directly onto the seafloor, as wave action and fishing activities are unlikely to affect it. When water depths are less than 1,000 metres – typically at the point where systems encroach upon the continental shelf – cables are buried using ploughs or remotely operated vehicles (which have impact widths of around seven metres and two metres, respectively). These methods are standard across the industry.

In these shallower depths, installations have the greatest potential to affect sensitive receptors, whether human, flora or fauna. When approaching the continental shelf, projects typically transition from being feats of engineering to activities that are focused on environmental susceptibility. This is due to the shelf’s high concentrations of marine fauna and flora and human sea-users, which are not typically associated with deep-sea areas. Depending on the country being crossed, it is quite typical for an FO system not to trigger an EIA owing to the its small size (from 17mm–40mm in diameter) and inert nature, as well as the strategic benefits provided by a diversified data capacity network.

When an EIA (or equivalent legislative impact assessment) is required, many of the standard chapters can be ‘scoped out’ due to the nature of marine space and the cable’s small footprint. However, key considerations are national security, marine heritage, cable protection zones and the associated ‘sterilised’ portions of the seabed, as well as ecological impact/protected zones for the marine component of the cable installation. The terrestrial beach ‘manhole’, where the system transitions from a marine to terrestrial system, is typically decoupled from the marine EIA. Construction and associated terrestrial components are therefore removed, simplifying the assessment.

Similarity in EIA format

EIA consultancy and the EIA industry in the UK are focused on regional and national projects including urban regeneration, civil and rail infrastructure, and near-shore marine infrastructure. The focus of these projects is not just the realisation of their value but also the incorporation of a greater range of potential receptors. Many of these projects have the potential for greater interaction with receptors and increased public visibility, so they come under heavy scrutiny. In addition, lifecycle analyses – the whole impact from material procurement to future wind microclimate and climate change aspects – must be accounted for, which is a factor not included in the telecoms industry. Clients for EIA projects are typically engineering firms, local and regional governments, and private developers for various projects.

However, there is at least one striking resemblance between the two industries: the triggered EIA requirements and the format that these must take. The considerations requested are almost identical, although telecoms projects will ‘scope out’ many standard chapters. The similarity in legislative requirements is due to many countries being in the ‘Western’ bloc – where the EU EIA directive or the North American Environmental Informational Regulations apply – or having environmental legislation that is modelled on that of these regions. In other situations, landings may be funded using international investment bank funds – typically located in the Western bloc – which require an EIA to the standards of the bank’s home country. This means that both UK and international projects follow similar types of assessment, creating a homogeneity of methods internationally for comparison.

Projects that trigger an EIA requirement will either be large-scale or have the potential to affect highly sensitive areas. Because of the consideration of size or potential impacts, any project will likely face public scrutiny if it could result in the loss of a sensitive area or potentially affect residents' standard of living without potentially providing tangible benefits. Public participation is important for identifying concerns and eliminating or mitigating adverse impacts. This allows for the reduction of negative externalities to an area while providing positive externalities such as employment, education and increased land value. This need for participation is a concern faced by terrestrial projects more than marine ones because of the former’s proximity to human receptors, visible nature and anticipated concentration of benefits to a few rather than to many.

Identifying stakeholders

During the EIA process for a proposed terrestrial project, it can be a challenge to identify stakeholders and counterfactuals or alternatives. This is due to the dispersed impacts a project can have, and the changes that occur between the construction and operational phases.

In contrast, the telecoms industry installs internationally, with little impact on local populations at the landing point. There are elimination requirements in marine licences and seabed leases, which are predictable on governmental scales, and the types of stakeholders the EIA consultant will typically engaged with are consistent across the world – fishermen, oil and gas asset owners, power and other FO cable owners, statutory government bodies and local residents. The benefit of siting a cable system is that, if sensitive marine and terrestrial spaces are avoided, they can be landed almost anywhere with appropriate beach conditions. This means that potential concerns to affected groups can be eliminated further by moving a system to a place where it will affect fewer receptors.

Furthermore, the potential impacts from the telecoms industry are concentrated in the installation phases, with only a few maintenance works being anticipated during the system’s lifetime – once installed, it lies benignly on or in the seafloor.

With terrestrial EIA projects, on the other hand, land availability is one of the greatest constraints – especially in urban regeneration, where the consultant is constrained to a particular site that must be considered from all aspects, from material sources to the lifecycle of the development. The consultant on a terrestrial EIA project must consider many more impacts, as well as how they will evolve for the entire project over time. In the telecoms industry, the only portion typically requiring permitting is the one sitting in the territorial seas, not inclusive of sourced material or vessel emissions.

James Malone is an EIA consultant at Waterman Infrastructure & Environment

Image credit | iStock

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