System-Based Assessments—Improving the Confidence in the EIA Process
“ […] the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social and other relevant effects of proposed development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.”
2. Approach to Problem
3. Background of the EIA Process
- Consideration of Alternatives. This step evaluates various alternatives and approaches for the proposed action, such as different locations, scales, and designs. Many times, however, this step is neglected in both developed and transitioning nations.
- Screening. This step answers the question: does the project require an EIA? Environmental legislation or governmental authority usually governs this. Projects that might require EIA are those which might produce a significant change in a renewable resource, such as water resource projects, oil extraction, infrastructure and industrial projects, coastline development projects, mineral extraction, energy plants, and waste management. Most countries require screening of all public and private projects that require government approval.
- Scoping. Scoping is a phase that determines of the most important receptors for analysis, i.e., the ones susceptible to undergo the largest impacts. This step is intended to occur preferably before, or at least during, project development and it is also intended to develop a scientifically expert-based identification of receptors of impacts (biotic, abiotic, social, and economic). This step is usually given equal attention in both developing countries and transitioning countries .
- Description of baseline conditions. The baseline identification process often starts in the scoping phase by identifying gaps in available data and existing local knowledge. Baseline surveys are then completed with the aim of filling data gaps and, ideally, providing information at scales relevant to the impact assessment. Nonetheless, the definition of “baseline” appears to vary in EIA development, with some practitioners defining baseline as strictly the condition/trends in the existing environment they determine are likely to be significantly impacted. This usually consists of an analysis of receptors and the environmental processes that influence them, which include biotic or abiotic receptors and processes. However, the use of a “receptor-based” approach usually leads to baseline studies that only investigate those features that might be significantly impacted by the project, which fails to fully capture ecosystem processes and dynamics [21,22].
- Selection of receptors. The development of objective criteria for the selection of receptors has been an issue in EIA for decades. In general, the rationale for the selection of receptors rests on a comprehensive analysis of the landscape, the project activities, the receptors that subject matter experts consider most likely to be negatively impacted, public opinion, the realistic ability to gather baseline and monitoring data, and coordination with other sustainability efforts in the region . Donnelly et al. (2007)  reviewed existing criteria for receptor selection with a multi-disciplinary team and concluded that receptor selection should include: relevance to project plan, prioritization in accordance with economic, social, and environmental significance, and the ability to identify conflicts with other environmental objectives for the region. Other authors have suggested using landscape vulnerability evaluations, resources of interest, or the selection of receptors based on the likelihood of impact during construction phases of the project or operation phases [23,24].
- Determination of impact likelihood and magnitude. This relies on the baseline conditions. Predicting impact likelihood and magnitude are some of the key tasks of EIA because these determine the significance of a particular impact. When possible, sensitivity analyses are done on these estimates, providing a basis for qualifying any expert input . Canter and Sadler (1997)  performed the most recent comprehensive review of impact analyses methods used in EIA, which to date has not been updated nor replicated in the literature. Methods ranged from basic analog project comparative methods to the development of environmental indices used to qualitatively compare pre-and post-project conditions, and the use of statistical models for air and water quality parameter predictions. However, they noted that the mathematical modeling techniques available at the time did not comprehensively describe the baseline conditions, nor post-project conditions, and that they were prohibitive in most instances due to the need for extensive data input and calibration . Indeed, most impact predictions have relied on expert, yet predominantly, subjective opinions.
- Impact significance is determined by the magnitude, duration, and extent of the predicted impacts. However, it can also be subjective and intertwined with values and inputs from various stakeholders. An impact at a large regional scale may be considered insignificant, but at a smaller, local scale could be highly significant. There have been attempts to quantify significance , but this requires appropriate statistical analysis of available data . The matrix published in Leopold et al. (1971)  that listed 8800 interactions as a result of project actions is still widely used today because it has the advantage of formalizing educated, but still subjective, reasoning . They also noted that only a few of those 8800 interactions would have significant likelihood and magnitude.
- Mitigation. If impacts are found to be significant, mitigation measures must be proposed. Compensation is also an option when mitigation is deemed not possible and alternatives can be costed and compared. An “environmental management plan” is then developed to identify actions to be taken.
4. How Does the EIA Process Compare in Different Nations?
Example of the Nigerian Case
5. Criticisms of Existing Approaches: What Role for Science?
6. What about Risk Assessment?
7. A Roadmap to Change: System-Based Environmental Impact Assessment (SBEIA)
Some Suggested Changes to Current Practice
Conflicts of Interest
|Actions||US ||EU |
|Types of activities requiring EIA||Public projects that are determined to have a significant impact on the environment require an EIA. However, public projects include any activity financed, assisted, or regulated by a federal agency, many private projects are subject to EIA. Does not apply to policies or programs.||Public and private projects that are likely to have a significant impact. Does not apply to policy or programs, but new SEA directive requires that. Annex 1 projects: mostly large infrastructure projects. Annex II projects: projects that Member states may require EIA and may exempt “in exceptional cases”. National defense projects and projects “the details of which are adopted by a specific act of national legislation” are not covered by the EC EIA directive.|
|Screening||Each federal agency has a list of projects that have been shown to not have significant impacts. For all other projects, a preliminary assessment is performed to determine if EIA is required.||Projects subjected to screening by category. Annex I require EIA, Annex II only require one if Member state determines it is necessary.|
|Who conducts EIA?||NEPA requires federal agency to conduct. Agency may hire consultants. Project proponents are forbidden to partake in the process of who will conduct the EIA. They can prepare preliminary assessments, but EIA is not prepared by project proponents||EC directive requires the project proponent to prepare the EIA, whether that be private or public.|
|Who pays for EIA?||Federal agencies are authorized to recover costs from project proponents, but only a minority of agencies have done so. Therefore, the financial burden falls on the taxpayer.||No guidance in directive. It is left up to Member States to decide.|
|When does EIA begin?||Earliest possible time in project development.||Not specified.|
|Scoping||Public is notified of intent to produce EIA and participation is encouraged in scoping. Agency with jurisdiction determines final scope. Needs to consider “connected actions, cumulative actions, and similar actions”. Also, direct and indirect impacts, and cumulative impacts||Directive does not discuss scoping, but does give some guidance: project description, site description, project size and design, measure used to reduce impacts, and data required. Member States may require more specific information. Alternatives must be analyzed also.|
|What types of impacts?||Directive simply states: “identify, describe, and assess direct and indirect|
impacts on human beings, flora, fauna, soil, water, air, climate, landscape, and the interaction
between them, and material assets and the cultural heritage”.
|Alternative analysis required?||Impacts of all reasonable alternatives must be analyzed||Member states decide whether alternative analysis may be included. If so, the developer decides alternatives to be discussed.|
|Mitigation measures?||Document must include mitigation measures, but agency is not required to adopt them, and, if not, they must explain why not. If adopted, lead agency must ensure they are enacted.||EIA must contain a description of the measures envisaged in order to avoid, reduce and, if possible, remedy significant adverse effects.|
|When must EIA be completed?||No action can be taken until 30 days after publication of EIA and public notification, filing with EPA.||The EC Directive does not specify when the EIA document must be completed, but states that|
projects must be made subject to EIA before consent to proceed with the project is given.
|Actions||Canada [57,58]||Australia [59,60,61]||New Zealand ||Netherlands [63,64]|
|Types of activities||Government and private projects, even projects outside the country that are funded by the government.||Government and private project requiring government leases and/or permits.||Government and private projects requiring leases and/or permits.||Government and private projects requiring permits and/or leases. Included EIA for plans in 2006 .|
|Screening||Government agency conducts screening process.||Government agency guides project proponent for screening. More recently private industry and municipalities have a screening process, sometimes termed a Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA) in order to reduce the need for an EIA early on in the process. A limitation of this is that these documents are not required to be reviewed by government and the public is not involved.||Government conducts screening||Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment regulates and drafts guidance. There is either Direct Obligation as determined by the competent authority, or a decision for a voluntary EIA by the project proponent.|
|Who conducts EIA?||Agency performing or funding project. For private projects, proponent is responsible. Conflict of interest not addressed.||Agency if it is a government project. Project proponent if it is a private project. EIA qualification not addressed in law. Conflict of interest not addressed.||Project proponent with or without a consultant. EIA qualifications not addressed in law. Conflict of interest not addressed in law.||Proponent announces intention to produce EIA, public consultation during scoping, competent authority advises the process to ensure guidelines are followed. Conflict of interest not addressed in law.|
|Who pays for EIA?||Participant funding available for limited financial support to non-profits, individuals, and Aboriginal groups. Cost recovery regulations are in place to recover costs from proponent.||Cost Recovery under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which provides that ‘those who create the need for regulation should incur the costs.||Not mandated by law, but usually project proponent. Bond may be required by government discretion.||Project proponent pays for EIA. If government project or major government funding is provided, the government agency funds EIA.|
|When does EIA begin?||Very early on when screening determines an EIA required.||After screening by agency determines significant impact.||After screening by agency determines significant impact.||Begins in scoping phase after EIA is announced by Competent Authority.|
|Scoping||Agency conducting project or proponent. Public comments are encouraged during scoping.||Scoping document (ESD) prepared by project proponent with guidance of govt may or may not be presented to public for a two week review period after it is completed.||Done by project proponent with input from public comment.||Public notice published by Competent Authority. Proponent begins scoping with public participation. Guidelines for the specific project are issued by the Competent Authority and consultation with the independent Netherlands Commission for EIA.|
|What types of impacts?||Direct, indirect, cumulative, economic, social, cultural, and regional impacts.||Direct, indirect, cumulative, economic, social, cultural, and regional impacts.||Direct, indirect, cumulative, economic, social, cultural, and regional impacts.||Direct, indirect, cumulative, economic, social, cultural, and regional impacts.|
|Alternative analysis required?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Mitigation measures?||Yes and monitoring where impacts have been identified||Yes and monitoring where impacts have been identified||Yes and monitoring where impacts have been identified.||Yes and monitoring where impacts have been identified.|
|When must EIA be completed?||Within 365 days, and 24 months with review panel.||Unique to each proposal.||No specified.||Not specified for screening. No official requirement for approval of scoping document, only recommendations.|
The National Commission for Environmental Assessment must publish advisory report on the quality of the EIA and get public comment within 6 weeks, Comments must be responded to within 3 weeks.
|Governing authority||Government Agency or a Review panel of individuals appointed by Minister of the Environment.||Government Agency. In Western Australia, the Department of Environment||Governing agency.||Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment|
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|Conventional EIA||System-Based EIA|
|Receptors||Treated separately, receptors are target of project disturbances and identified within project area||Treated as components of a network system inserted into a larger ecosystem with specific properties|
|Baselines||Defined only by observations||Uses the dynamics of the system to define set of reference conditions that are validated by measurements|
|Estimate of impact||Qualitative rankings based on index matrix, rarely mentions confidence level||Quantified estimates per receptor, including confidence level and sensitivity analysis|
|Cumulative impact||Separate process, after initial impact assessment||Integral to system-based estimates of impact|
|Risk analysis||Based on probability only||Scenario based, uses a probability that is estimated from possible occurrences|
|Monitoring||Limited to particular receptors||Concept of a sentinel can be used to select and monitor variables demonstrated to be sensitive to change due to project or project dysfunction|
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Wilson, J.; Hinz, S.; Coston-Guarini, J.; Mazé, C.; Guarini, J.-M.; Chauvaud, L. System-Based Assessments—Improving the Confidence in the EIA Process. Environments 2017, 4, 95. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments4040095
Wilson J, Hinz S, Coston-Guarini J, Mazé C, Guarini J-M, Chauvaud L. System-Based Assessments—Improving the Confidence in the EIA Process. Environments. 2017; 4(4):95. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments4040095Chicago/Turabian Style
Wilson, Jeff, Shawn Hinz, Jennifer Coston-Guarini, Camille Mazé, Jean-Marc Guarini, and Laurent Chauvaud. 2017. "System-Based Assessments—Improving the Confidence in the EIA Process" Environments 4, no. 4: 95. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments4040095