Environmental impact assessment process under challenge

Published 10 September 2015 by Jon Womersley FEIANZ CEnvP, EIANZ President

Environmental impact assessment processes have been a foundation for public decision making about activities that have an impact on the environment for more than four decades. They are a tool of project evaluation, although they have begun to morph into a tool for more strategic forms of assessment of the environmental consequences of development of large areas of geography and of public plans and policies.

The principles of environmental impact assessment involve the serious engagement of the community, through public consultation, in the process of assessment. This will always present difficult challenges for the:

  • Proponents of projects, developments, or public plans and policies; as their objectives are not always aligned with those of the communities that may bear the consequences of an action
  • Environmental practitioners who are charged with gathering, analysing, synthesising, and reporting the science that is needed to inform the process
  • Those that are charged with administering the law and making lawful decisions.

The EIANZ champions good science as the foundation of good practice environmental management. It also champions the rule of law. Important aspects of the environmental impact assessment process are under challenge because there has been a court decision, on grounds largely related to technical failure of administrative procedure, to overturn an approval for a major new coal mining project.  As a consequence there is an amendment being proposed to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) that would remove the extended standing provisions of Section 487 which provide for parties to take decisions under the Act to judicial review.

The provisions of Section 487 are not sweeping, being limited to the judicial review of decisions made, failed to be made, or conduct engaged in for the purpose of making a decision. They are important in giving rights to the community to ensure that decisions relating to the protection of the environment have been taken in accordance with the law.

The EIANZ has responded to an invitation from the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee to make a submission to its inquiry into the proposed repeal of Section 487 of the EPBC Act. Under the guidance of the Chairs of the Board Policy and Practice Committee (Zena Helman FEIANZ) and Impact Assessment Special Interest Section (Lachlan Wilkinson MEIANZ CEnvP) a submission has been made.  A copy of the letter of transmittal and the submission is available here.  These are public documents and can be distributed to interested and influential colleagues.

This is an example of the kind of activity that the EIANZ engages in to ensure that there is soundly based good practice environmental policy and management.  It is an opportunity for the EIANZ to not only defend legislative provisions that accord with good practice internationally, but also to represent the value of the multi-disciplinary effort by environmental practitioners that sits behind the environmental impact assessment process.

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Copies of EIANZ policy submissions are available here →