All the way with EIA

There’s still value in persisting with Environmental Impact Assessment

By Peter Burnett

For more than a decade I’ve been working and researching in the field of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). I keep telling myself to move on, that my priorities lie in overarching environmental policy frameworks and that EIA is just one decision-support tool (admittedly one that is very popular), best adapted for dealing with local issues. But I can’t stay away from EIA. Is there new life for this old tool?

Why can’t I stay away from EIA?

It’s partly a ‘boys-and-their-toys’ thing. I’m a lawyer by training and EIA has developed from a simple idea of gathering all the relevant environmental information for decision-making into a complex nested set of processes that can take up hundreds of legislative pages. It’s even more complicated in Australia’s federal system, which has EIA at national and state levels. I admire the sophistication of the EIA process as it has evolved and enjoy nutting out how this complicated system applies to any particular development project.

It’s partly an ‘in-the-club’ thing. Having been responsible for administering EIA under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and having been accepted by peers as having some knowledge and expertise, I found myself reluctant to let this ‘club membership’ expire when I changed status from senior public servant to PhD candidate in 2013. So I found a way to make EIA one of my case studies in a thesis that was focused on high level policy relating to sustainability.

But the strongest reason was my belief in the potential of this tool. My instinct was that even though EIA didn’t seem to be achieving its original aspirations of leading to decisions that would protect the environment, not just in particular cases but across the board, it still had potential to play a major role in doing so.

But I wasn’t quite sure why it didn’t seem to work or how it might be improved, beyond the consensus view to make more use of strategic approaches to EIA. This would avoid the ‘salami slicing’ or ‘death of a thousand cuts’ involved in project-based EIA decisions such as the approval of individual mines or housing divisions.

Regulating discretion

One of my research findings concerned the way in which discretionary decision-making works in our legal system. EIA decisions need to be at least partly discretionary to allow decision-makers to tailor approval conditions to a multitude of cases and circumstances. Yet if that discretion is to be exercised consistently, it must also be constrained.

The problem here stems from the way the legal system has evolved to regulate discretion. First there are general principles of administrative law, which are directed to making sure that decision-makers takes fair decisions based on all the relevant information, at the same time preventing them from straying off the reservation by taking irrelevant factors into account or doing someone else’s bidding. These general rules are usually supplemented in EIA by statutory directions to consider specific environmental factors, such as the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD).

But in either case the courts treat these as rules of due process. Short of the rare instances in which a substantive decision has no apparent rational basis (or in special cases such as the NSW Land and Environment Court) they won’t go into the merits of the decision. They regard merits as the province of governments or their appointed statutory expert decision-makers.

So they won’t tell a decision-maker what to decide. Fair enough. But Parliament can tell the decision-maker what to decide, although this is harder than it seems.

Take the EPBC Act. At first blush, it seems to be steering decision-makers towards a goal of ESD. But on closer examination the Act uses qualified language, saying it wants to ‘promote’ ESD. Then it takes a reductionist approach and breaks (an undefined) ESD into five ‘principles of ESD’ which the decision-maker must simply ‘consider’.

We’re back to due process. If he or she chooses, the decision-maker can pay lip service to these ‘considerations’ and then take any decision at all, short of irrationality.

Even if the Act used the clearest of language to define ESD and direct decision-makers to achieve that goal in all their decisions, this is probably not enforceable, because in such a broad context the courts would regard the question of whether any given decision achieved ESD (or other clearly defined policy goal) was one of merits or expertise, not law.

Can we fix it?

My research conclusion was that there were only two ways to ensure that individual EIA-based decisions deliver environmental policy goals in an enforceable way. Both involve translating the policy goal into limits of acceptable action at any given place and narrowing the scope for discretion, and the two approaches are related.

The first is environmental planning. In an ideal world of environmental plans, if you want to build a mine, the relevant plan will tell you whether this is possible on an unrestricted basis, or on conditions; for example that there were offsets available for certain vegetation losses.

The second, a combination of specific decision rules plus comprehensive environmental information (which often needs to be geospatial, thus bearing some resemblance to planning) will achieve a similar result. If you want to build a mine and there is a rule against clearing critical habitat, the answer depends in part on whether the mine site is listed as critical habitat. And a decision to approve a mine in an area of critical habitat would be challengeable in court, because this is not an instance of discretion but the breach of a rule.

There would still be a role for EIA and discretion under both these approaches, but its task would be more oriented to the detailed conditions under which the proposal should proceed. Of course, these approaches would be expensive and, in our federal system, particularly complex.

They also shift decision-making away from pluralism and trade-offs towards a more constrained application of rules. This is uncomfortable territory for politicians, but a necessary evil if we are to make EIA an instrument of our high-level policy goals.

Sticking with EIA

So I found a way to satisfy my urge to stay involved with EIA, by connecting it to policy and information. To highlight that connection, consider this poetic metaphor inspired by John Masefield’s poem, Sea Fever. We need to shift our attention from the ‘tall ship’ of EIA to the entire voyage of environmental decision-making, which requires both a clear sense of destination (policy) and fulsome environmental information, ‘a star to steer her by’.

EIA is an important tool but unless we have a clear sense of where we want it to take us and ensure the necessary information is available to guide its application, then this venerable tool will not be delivering the environmental outcomes it was established for.

Image by MonikaP from Pixabay

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