Sunday, February 6, 2011

Do environmental impact assessments help protect the environment?

Does the environmental impact assessment (EIA) administrative tool help protect the environment? EIA is a systematic process of evaluating environmental consequences of a proposed development project or management plan. In concept, EIA provides the information necessary to minimize environmental problems of proposed actions and encourages collaboration among the stakeholders in environmentally controversial decisions. Author Neil Carter, in The Politics of the Environment, explains that while EIA brings environmental concerns into the decision-making process in a rational way and encourages policymakers to preemptively address environmental impacts of their proposals more routinely, it “contains fundamental conceptual and technical weaknesses that render it vulnerable to charges of bias, unreliability, and imprecision”(p.302). I believe EIA is an important process for policymakers to engage in and will often, but not always, lead to some environmental benefit.

In the US, when a proposed Federal action could affect the environment, the National Environmental Policy Act of 19691 requires an investigation into the potential environmental, human health, and socio-cultural effects of the proposed action, as well as alternative actions. EIA is designed to provide information about how to avert or reduce negative environmental impacts of actions such as construction of public work projects, changes to public lands management plans, or permits for development2. Countries of the European Union have also enacted EIA legislation3.

When carried out appropriately, EIA is good because it involves a wide array of stakeholders in policy discussions. It allows environmental groups and the general public to get involved in the decision making process for proposals that affect them. If done sufficiently in advance, the EIA gives them access to information in agency draft reports, and the power to comment and apply for judicial review. This type of democratic inclusion does not usually stop a project from proceeding, especially when backed by powerful economic interests. In practice, only a well-organized and informed public interest or environmental group can intelligently comment due to the typically highly technical nature of the draft reports. However, this transparency in the process increases the chances that the proposal will attempt to minimize environmental damage.

Whereas risk assessment considers often inconclusive scientific data and cost-benefit analysis evaluates only economic issues, EIA takes into account wider concerns, such as potential social and cultural impacts of a project. EIA is the most likely of these administrative tools to capture environmental justice issues. However, the authority of an EIA can be hurt by this non-quantitative approach, potentially biased source material (EIAs are often outsourced), and ambiguity in its findings (p.302).

EIA doesn’t guarantee environmentally favorable outcomes. Entities captured by powerful economic interests can manipulate EIA to deliver on their own political ends. Policymakers could and do use an EIA to give the mere appearance of rationality to their decision making (p.303) or ignore the alternatives and enact a proposal with negative environmental impacts.

Done properly, an EIA is basically an informational tool to force policymakers to think about environmental concerns. It should increase the likelihood developers will anticipate environmental objections and subsequently modify their proposals. EIA can slowly creep environmental concerns into the social radar of planners and some environmental protection, however small, may result from their participation in the process.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor

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1 http://ceq.hss.doe.gov/welcome.html (accessed 1/30/11)

2http://www.eoearth.org/article/Environmental_Impact_Assessment (accessed 1/31/11)

3http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32001L0042:EN:HTML (accessed 1/31/11)

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