For more than 25 years, environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have been required for projects likely to have a significant impact on the environment. A revision of the EIA Directive aims to correct shortcomings and to simplify and harmonise the assessment process.
Public or private projects (e.g. construction of railway lines, motorways, waste disposal facilities, mining sites) may have adverse effects on the environment. Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a process to ensure that broad environmental implications have been taken into account before authorities in Member States (MS) approve project plans. For certain types or size of project, an EIA is always required; for other or smaller projects, authorities ‘screen’ projects against established criteria to decide if an EIA is needed and ‘scope’ them to decide what information should be considered. The public is consulted and informed about all decisions. In the EU, 15 000 to 26 000 EIAs are performed each year. On average, each assessment takes just under 12 months.
In force since 1985, the EIA Directive (85/337/EC) has received minor revisions three times (the last time in 2009); all changes were then codified in Directive 2011/92/EU. However the application of the Directive has been problematic: 12% of environmental infringement cases brought before the Court of Justice and many citizen petitions to the European Parliament (EP) concern the EIA Directive. The European Commission (EC) has proposed to address these shortcomings, harmonise application in the MS, simplify regulation and take into account new issues e.g. biodiversity, climate change and the use of natural resources.
The proposed revision would establish timeframes for various steps in the process as well as expanding and detailing the content of screening and scoping documents and reports. It would also require project monitoring after approval when authorities anticipate significant adverse effects. Moreover, MS would have to set up ‘one-stop shops’ to ensure coordination with other assessments required by specific EU acts on, for example, industrial emissions, water quality and natural habitats.
Reactions to the proposed revision
The European Environmental Bureau, an NGO, supports the proposal, but calls for stronger public information provisions and the ability to block projects until screening or EIA is complete. Some environmental and health NGOs call for EIAs to be required for exploratory shale gas projects (not only for gas production). Oil and gas producers disagree, considering that this would undermine EU efforts to spur growth and create jobs.
The report of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (rapporteur Andrea Zanoni, ALDE, Italy) strengthens some provisions and adds new ones to the EC proposal. It calls for measures to avoid conflicts of interest, the establishment of a public information portal and additional provisions for cross-border projects. Mitigation or compensation actions will be required if project monitoring reveals problems, while infringements will lead to penalties. EIAs would be made mandatory for new types of projects including exploring for unconventional fossil fuels (e.g. shale gas and oil). On the other hand, the report drops accreditation of experts as being impractical.
Council of Ministers
Preliminary discussions in Council suggested that some MS were concerned with added administrative burdens due to a more prescriptive system and different assessment systems in the MS. Particular concerns included mandatory scoping, the ‘one-stop shops’ and lack of flexibility in reports and deadlines. Discussions of a draft Council position were ongoing in September 2013.