A proposed update of EU law to make environmental impact assessments clearer, build in biodiversity and climate change, and involve the public, was backed by the Environment Committee on Wednesday. This update, already informally agreed with the Council of Ministers, includes beefed up rules to ensure that decisions to authorize development projects are not influenced by conflicts of interest.
Around 200 types of project are covered by the Environmental Impact Assessment directive (EIA) – from bridges, ports, motorways and landfill sites to intensive rearing of poultry or pigs.
“The revision of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive marks a very important stage in the history of EU environmental policy. After more than 28 years in operation, it is time to update this essential environment policy tool to cope with the new global challenges of the twenty-first century”, said MEP Andrea Zanoni (ALDE, IT), who is steering the legislation through Parliament.
“Despite strong resistance from several member states, Parliament achieved its aim of raising quality standards to protect human health and the environment better. Governments will have to take these standards into account in order to make informed decisions. The agreement we negotiated received the support of key environmental NGOs”, he added.
The updated law would require impact assessments to take account of new environmental factors, such as biodiversity and climate change. It would also make assessment methods clearer, facilitate public participation via a central web portal, and include beefed-up rules to prevent conflicts of interest and restrict recourse to exemptions.
To ensure that assessments are objective, the law would require EU member states to ensure a “functional separation” of the competent authority from the project developer.
Assessment reports would also have to assess projects against new criteria, and provide new information, for the authorities to take into account in their decisions. These criteria include a cumulation of projects (to prevent developers from splitting big projects into many smaller ones so as to stay below thresholds), and hydro-morphological changes.
Despite Parliament’s requests, mandatory environmental impact assessments for the extraction and exploration of shale gas, regardless of the expected yield, were not included in the agreement.
However, new aspects of gas projects will have to be taken into account, notably the risks to human health due to water contamination, use of soil and water as well as the quality and regenerative capacity of water underground. If member states conclude that no assessment is needed, then they will have to state the reasons why.
The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive applies to both public and private projects. It sets out certain criteria, inter alia for the information that must be submitted to national authorities for a project to be assessed for approval.Assessments help policy makers to take well-informed decisions, based on objective information and the results of consultations with the public and stakeholders. In 2005-2008, the average number of environmental impact assessments carried out in the EU ranged from 15,000 to 26,000 per year.
The agreed text was approved by 46 votes to 8, with 2 abstentions. It is to be put to a vote by the full House during the 10-13 March plenary session in Strasbourg.