The fine balance of EIA: a Chilean case study

Environmental Impact Assessment is defined by Bram Noble as “a process to predict environmental effects of propose initiatives before they are carried out” (Noble, 2010). This general definition is agreed upon throughout Canada and the rest of the world, however there is less confidence and consensus when it comes to employing this process in an effective and successful fashion. One of the core challenges facing an environmental assessment practitioner is weighing the fine balance between socio-economic benefits and adverse environmental impacts (Weaver). To expand upon this idea I present a Chilean case study concerning the hydroelectric company HidroAysen and their multibillion-dollar hydrodam project in the region of Patagonia, Chile.

This specific project offers much needed socio-economic benefits to the country of Chile. Chile’s power supplies are highly dependent on imported fossil fuels, and in face of the country’s growing consumption, the supplies will need supplementation from another source (Dettoni, 2012). Chilean president Pinera states “…if we do not take action today, we are condemning the country to a black out by the end of this decade” (Barrionuevo, 2011). This hydro project has the potential to alleviate poverty and increase rural electrification in Chile (Lynch, 2002).

On the flip side are the numerous environmental impacts this project may have. The EIA states that there will be a significant decrease in soil quality, as well as changes in runoff pattern (EIA report). Additionally the project will have drastic reductions in habitats of flora and fauna, and significant relocations of local communities (EIA report). Finally, significant impacts to the landscape esthetic and heritage of the famous Patagonia region are also predicted (EIA report).

The following is an Al Jazeera news report concerning the project:

Added to these push and pull influences between socio-economics and environment, the EIA process must also take into consideration the voice of the people. Community involvement and activism adds another huge parameter to the EIA’s decision-making abilities. Public participation can have an enormous sway; the Chilean government recently decided to put a halt on the HidroAysen project, due to high amounts of public protest (Gutierrez & Kraul, 2012).

Below is another Al Jazeera news report concerning the public protests:

I believe the solution to this problem of balance lies within the idea of significance and weighting. Objective weighting factors reflecting the importance of each parameter and proper significance criteria are imperative to the functioning and success of a truly balanced and integrated EIA. In the case of HidroAysen’s project, the challenge of finding a balance between economic energy needs and environmental protection has yet to be overcome.

This hot button issue has accumulated so much international recognition that a documentary was produced in 2011. Entitled “Patagonia Rising”, this documentary films the trials and tribulations of the rural communities in face of this proposed project. Here is the official trailer:

References:

Barrionuevo, A. (2011, June 16). Plan for hydroelectric dam in Patagonia outrages Chileans. The New York Times, retrieved from:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/17/world/americas/17chile.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

Dettoni, J., Stankova, Y., Salutz, A. (2012) Chile’s Power Challenge: Reliable Energy supplies. Power Magazine, September 2012, p. 61-70

EIA report: Executive Summary of the HidroAysen Project Environmental Impact Assessment, 2008, translated at University of Michigan in February 2009 by Steven J. Wright.

Gutierrez, F. & Kraul, C. (2012, June 1). Controversial dam project in Chile’s Patagonia region on hold. Los Angeles Times, retrieved from: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/06/dam-project-chile-patagonia-suspended.html

Lynch, P. (2002). An Energy Overview of Chile. Retrieved October 11, 2012 from United States of America department of energy: Fossil Energy International. Website: http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/national_energy_grid/chile/EnergyOverviewofChile.shtml

Noble, B.F. (2010). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice. (2nd Ed.). Don Mills (ON): Oxford University Press

Weaver, A. (no date). EIA and sustainable development: Key concepts and tools. Retrieved October 11, 2012 from http://www.saiea.com/SAIEA-Book/Introduction1.pdf

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