Do environmental impact assessments protect the environment?

From ABC Environment, 6 March 2013:

BUSINESSES PROTESTS AGAINST the cost and delay associated with environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Green groups say they are not rigorous enough and that few projects are ever knocked back. Environmental consultants plead for more time, better funding and broader scope. The wider community clamours for its voice to be heard. And numerous experts criticise the short-termism and narrow focus of the EIA process.

However one thing all these groups agree on is that we need EIAs.

At its broadest level, an EIA is a process for assessing environmental impacts likely to result from development proposals. It is primarily a scientific technique existing within a legal framework that focuses on ecological, biodiversity, social and economic impacts. For developers, miners and other project instigators, EIA represents a decision-making framework for modifying activity to reduce or eliminate the environmental impacts identified.

Angus Morrison-Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Assessment at Murdoch University, believes that in Australia, as a general rule, the EIA process gets it mostly right.

“Conservationists will say the process doesn’t work because [environmental regulators] never reject anything, but in fact, the process does work, because it’s the assessment process that actually leads to changes to the project that make it acceptable,” he says.

The perception is that EIAs are a one-off exercise, but Morrison-Saunders says they are part of the ongoing process of adaptive environmental management. He and co-author John Bailey published a study the journal Environmental Management in 1999 that reviewed the influence of EIAs on the course of six projects in WA – two water supply dams, an offshore oil and gas production facility, a mineral sands processing plant and a chemical manufacturing plant. The authors concluded that “a strong relationship exists between EIA and ongoing environmental management performance in WA”.

“What normally happens is there’s a consultation process with stakeholders, government regulators, experts – that’s the assessment part – and they say, ‘if you did it this way it would be better, and if you reduce that bit of footprint that would be good, and if you change the mitigation here that would be fine’,” commented Morrison-Saunders.

“You modify the development proposal until it becomes something that is acceptable to the majority of the players, and then you go ahead.” Read more.

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