Environmental Impact Assessments – size matters

Environmental impact assessments, South Pass Oil Impacts Environmental impact assessments, South Pass Oil Impacts —lagohsep (Flickr.com)

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), which are required in large-scale planning applications, are supposed to ensure that planning decisions take into consideration the environmental effects of any significant development. Recently, though, some people have been asking whether some environmentally damaging developments are slipping through the net.

The EIA regime that operates in the UK is based on EU law. The first EIA Directive was adopted in 1985 (Directive 85/337). Following amendments in 1997 (Directive 97/11), 2003 (Directive 2003/35) and 2009 (Directive 2009/31), it was consolidated in the current EIA Directive – Directive 2011/92, adopted on 13 December 2011.

In the UK, the Directives have been implemented by a series of Statutory Instruments. The main current SI is the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011 (SI 2011/1824), which was made to implement the changes introduced by Directive 97/11. Previous versions of these Regulations had been made in 1988 (SI 1988/1199) and 1999 (SI 1999/293). There are different versions of the Regulations for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Regulations breaks development projects down into two categories:

  • “Schedule 1 projects” – for which an EIA is always required; and
  • “Schedule 2 projects” – for which an EIA is required only where the particular project at issue is deemed likely to have significant environmental effects on account of its size

Schedule 1 covers major projects of various types, all of which could pose a fairly obvious risk to the environment if they aren’t carefully sited or don’t have proper safeguards. These are things like oil refineries, nuclear power stations, nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, iron and steel works, asbestos plants, industrial-scale chemical processing plants, railways, airports, motorways and other major roads, hazardous waste disposal plants, and so on.

Schedule 2 covers an even broader range of types of development concerning facilities in most industries, including agriculture, mining, the energy industry, metals and minerals industries, the chemicals industry, the food industry, and even tourism and leisure. But, such development projects only require an Environmental Impact Assessment when they meet certain criteria as to size or capacity. Projects which aren’t big enough to meet these criteria for consideration under Schedule 2 escape the need for an EIA. The implication is that such projects are too minor to have a significant effect on the environment.

That has not led to all such projects escaping criticism on environmental grounds, however. For instance, the controversial operation in Lancashire where shale gas is being extracted by means of “fracking” – pumping high pressure liquids into the shale in order to fracture the rock and release gas – escaped the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment because the site is less than one hectare, the threshold for drilling operations under point 2(d) of the table in Schedule 2 to the 2011 Regulations. This has not stopped allegations that the “fracking” operation is responsible for water pollution and earthquakes, which has in turn led to calls for the rules to be tightened.

Such calls may not, it seems, fall on deaf ears, as the Blackpool Gazette recently reported that Tony Grayling, head of climate change and communications at the Environment Agency, has said the policy will be reviewed.


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