Where are you going EIA?

This is an exclusive guest blog by planning expert Mitch Cooke on the European Commission’s planned legislation changes to environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

The European Commission has recently outlined its plans to change EU legislation on environmental impact assessments (EIAs). The Commission says its proposals for an updated EIA Directive – to replace Directive 2011/92/EU – are intended to reduce administrative burdens and make it easier to assess the potential impacts of EIA projects, whilst maintaining environmental safeguards. It is also seeking a more ‘harmonised’ regulatory framework, although how member states apply these changes are yet to be understood.

Commenting recently, European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said: “For the past 25 years, the EIA Directive has helped ensure that environmental considerations are integrated into decision-making for projects. This has improved the sustainability of countless projects. But loopholes need to be fixed, in particular concerning the quality of the assessment process, to make sure that projects that will affect the environment are properly assessed.”

Indeed. There are, on average, are up to 26,000 EIAs across the EU each year, taking up to 11 months each to take through the regulatory process.  Businesses have criticized this as being too slow and costly.

In an age of austerity there is a challenge to be faced by the Commission; whilst they acknowledge that the current Directive is old, lacks quality standards and does not sufficiently cover issues such as climate change and resource efficiency, they must also consider how to pick up on the need for a streamlined process and do more (for less).

The commission will seek to change the triggers for when an EIA is required, so that only projects with significant environmental impacts are subject to an assessment. The new Directive will also require authorities to consider impacts from alternative proposals and to clearly explain the reasons behind their decisions. According to the commission, these changes should provide more legal certainty and speed things up. For those of us ‘lucky’ enough to be EIA practitioners I see more legal uncertainty and more individual interpretation of how things will be applied – the lawyers must be looking forward to it!