A proposed update of EU law to make environmental impact assessments clearer, ensure they take account of biodiversity and climate change and involve the public, was backed by the European Parliament on Wednesday. This update, already informally agreed with the Council of Ministers, also aims to ensure that development project authorisations 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.
“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 was backed by key environmental NGOs”, said MEP Andrea Zanoni (ALDE, IT), who is steering the legislation through Parliament.
Assessments will have to take account of new environmental factors such as biodiversity and climate change. The new rules will 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 exemptions.
Conflicts of interest
To ensure objectivity, EU member states will have to operate a “functional separation” between the competent authority and the project developer. Assessment reports would also have to provide new information, e.g. on cumulation of projects, to prevent developers from splitting big projects into smaller ones so as to stay below thresholds, and on 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 legislation. 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 criteria inter alia for the information that must be submitted to national authorities for a project to be assessed for approval. 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 528 votes to 135, with 15 abstentions. The Council of Ministers is to vote on the file in the coming weeks.