The EIA burden

When confronted to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), project proponents often claim that the EIA process or parts of it are too cumbersome and that the process in itself is a burden to them.

This negative perception of EIA is present internationally.  In a case of First Nations participation in the EIA process in British Columbia (Canada), it has been declared by a project proponent that public participation is a cost “that is very difficult to sell to the board, [or] to the shareholders because there is nothing tangible that comes out of it from a business or a commodity perspective.[1]  In Thailand, it has been described that “although the EIA process was implemented approximately 35 years [ago] in Thailand, it is still controversial; some project developers regard EIA as an undesirable burden, some seek to avoid EIA procedure, and also some government administrators in charge of EIA view the process as a heavy burden.[2]

In some cases, the EIA purpose and goals will be totally misunderstood and it will even be claimed that the “EIA operates as the regulatory framework for constraining ambitions and limiting development.[3]

In an attempt to evaluate the degree of this burden, RETIEF F. et al. (2009) produced a table comparing the costs of EIAs in different countries including the proportional cost of the EIA in regards of the overall project cost (see Table 1 below).  It can be seen that in Canada, for instance, where Screening EIAs are produced 99% of the time[4], the cost of such an EIA is about 1.1% the cost of the total project.

Source: RANTIEF F. et al. (2009)[5]

Considering that:
a) the EIA process incorporates provisions for long-term benefits instead of solely short-term ones,
b) that these EIAs are pursued to increase overall society benefits and not only the benefits of the project proponent and,
c) that a project proponent will actually only pursue a project when he is confident that his financial gains outweighs by far the total cost incurred by the project,

it appears that the proportionally low cost of the EIA towards the total project cost cannot surely be qualified as a burden for the project proponent.  The negative perception towards EIAs must then come from the fact that the EIA process is not considered to be part of the normal project management process.

EIA in project management

During the course of managing a project, it is rarely seen as a burden to spend time elaborating a budget, setting-up milestones or incorporating the skills and knowledge of external contributors.  This is so because these tasks are perceived as mandatory parts of a well-planned project.  Creating a budget will allow efficient costs management; creating milestones will allow steering the project in the right direction in a timely manner while the added skills and know-how of other people will ensure overcoming technical challenges along the way.

The EIA process should be perceived in much the same way.  For example, screening allows classifying the project in terms of environmental impact, hence evaluating right from the start the level of planning required for environmental mitigation (technical, legal, etc.).

The scoping process in EIA is there to ensure that the project is well-defined so that subsequent work is done in the direction of the main objectives of that project, reducing the chance of scope creep.  Public participation in EIA allows incorporating different skills and know-how in order to overcome the difficult challenge of “sustainable development”.

This negative perception of “the EIA burden” is fortunately not totally generalized.  It has been found, for example, that for the mining industry in both Canada and Australia, “most firms see EIA as a catalyst for integrating environmental design into the early planning of a project[6].

With time, “the EIA burden” perception might even become an indicator of the level of quality of project planning of a proponent.


[1] BOOTH, Annie L. et al. (2011) – Industry and government perspective on First Nations’ participation in the British Columbia environmental assessment process, Environmental Impact Assessment Review 31 (2011), p.220.

[2] SARAWUTH, Chesoh (2011) – Environmental Impact Assessment of Power Development Project: Lessons from Thailand Experiences, Asian Social Science Vol. 7, No. 9, p. 119.

[3] Future Cities Project, UK – Consultation on EIA Guidance Documents (http://www.futurecities.org.uk/positions/pos09061.html).  Page last accessed on January 27th 2012.

[4] Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, CEAA (2010) – Towards an Inclusive Framework for Environmental Impact Assessment, 1.2 The Research Context (http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=5C69BC7B-1&offset=6&toc=show).  Page last accessed on January 27th 2012.

[5] RETIEF F. et al. (2009) – The Cost of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in South Africa, Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 54.

[6] ANNANDALE, David et al. (2003) – Is environmental impact assessment regulation a ‘burden’ to private firms?, Environmental Impact Assessment Review 23 (2003), p. 383.

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