How do we know if environmental impact assessment is effective?

Project Overview

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) has a relatively long history as an environmental management tool. It is well established, widely practised and arguably well regarded. But its effectiveness is debated and not well understood. In Canada recent changes to federal legislation and some provincial systems may compromise the capacity of EIA to help environmental management and mitigate risks and impacts.

Effectiveness is a long-standing issue in EIA research—the theme is fundamental to the development of EIA and essential to understanding its contributions to environmental management. However, systematic evaluations of the actual impacts and influence of EIA on environmental quality and policy are rare, and the Canadian context is no exception.

Is EIA an effective instrument for environmental management in Canada? EIA laws exist in every Canadian province, territory and at the federal level; however, we lack comprehensive evaluations of the efficacy of Canadian EIA. Agencies and scholars have examined the influence of individual EIA dynamics; such as public participation, monitoring, or social learning. Some have looked at how ‘happy’ stakeholders, notably agencies and development proponents, are with EIA. These studies have tended to focus on streamlining EIA systems, or making them easier for those whose undertakings are subject to EIA. But has this concern with process efficiency come at the expense of effective EIA?

A working definition of effectiveness…

The most overarching definition of the effectiveness of environmental assessment is the extent to which it identifies, assesses, and finds ways to mitigate or eliminate the potential negative impacts of development, and importantly how well environmental assessment helps or improves environmental management and ultimately the state of the environment.

Our research aims to go beyond process studies. We are working to develop criteria that can be used to better understand the impact of EIA on environmental management and decision-making, and provide research that examines the nuanced factors that help shape its effectiveness.

Our Universities

The University of British Columbia

The University of Saskatchewan

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At the IAIA 2013 Conference in Calgary, ALberta

Brandon Gregg, Kevin Hanna, Bram Noble and Wanda Leung

News 2014


The U.S. ambassador to Canada is asking Canadians for "patience" on the Keystone XL issue on his first Independence Day in Ottawa. Bruce Heyman, in an interview with CBC Radio, was asked about the diplomatic issue that has been dogging the Obama administration "Keystone is a challenge that we have," Heyman said. "It is something that we are going to have to work on together. Right now, it is in a process and a decision will be made. But we are going to move on."

A landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision involving aboriginal rights and title in British Columbia is already having ripple effects, with one First Nation saying it would file a new court case in its wake amid speculation that the ruling could shift a sluggish treaty-making process into high gear.The SCC (June 26) confirmed the Tsilhqot’in Nation have aboriginal title to about 2,000 square kilometres of land in interior B.C. There are substantial implications for EA in Canada and the prospects for contnetious devleopment applications such as teh Norther Gateway Pipeline. Click here to see the Globe and Mail article.

The Canadian federal government has approved construction of the proposed $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, setting up a fierce political battle over resource development in Canada that should persist into the 2015 election. The federal approval (June 17) may be seen as a major step forward for the proponent, Calgary-based Enbridge, but clouds of uncertainty continue to hang over the controversial initiative. It would pipe Alberta oil sands through northern B.C. to the Pacific and then through coastal waters in supertankers. The project would require approval from the BC government and potential approval form key First Nations organizations. Click here to see he Globe and Mail article.


The Canadian federal government is introducing legislation to make companies on all federally regulated pipelines responsible for the first $1 billion in cleanup costs from an oil spill, even when they're not at fault.In Vancouver, federal Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said the government is building on pipeline safety legislation it introduced last year. See the CBC article.

TransCanada Corp, the company seeking to build the  Keystone XL pipeline, has told Nebraska landowners that more generous financial offers will not be offered after today. Future offers will be less generous after the company's deadline
passes to sign easement deals allowing the pipeline onto their property. Whilst the Keystone XL project has been delayed for a number of reasons, the company's approach to dealing with landowners is a factor in the troubled history of the project, and it provides lessons for project planning and impact assessment. Click here to see the CBC article.

According to its own records
Canada’s National Energy Board is spending months, and in some cases years, in discussions with Canadian pipeline companies that break federal rules. The NEB has the power to prosecute or impose fines, but in several recent cases involving spills, ruptures or inadequate infrastructure, the records — including investigation reports, audits and correspondence — show that the board generally responded to incidents with warnings or orders to restrict pipeline pressure and fix defects. See the Toronto Star article here.


Canada's Environment Minister has recommended that North Pacific humpback whales be reclassified from “threatened” to "a species of special concern”. This would remove a major barrier for approval of Enbridge's Gateway pipeline which would see diluted bitumen flow to the British Columbia coast. However, a member of the federal advisory committee on endangered species said that good news, not bad, is behind the decision to reduce protection for the whale. The recommendation comes just few a months before the Canadian government's expected approval of the Enbridge pipeline. See the Globe and Mail editorial. and coverage in the Vancouver Sun

The Obama administration has (yet again?) put on hold a decision about whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline – in a move likely to delay any action on the project until after November’s midterm elections. The State Department announced on Friday it would “provide more time” for a review into the pipeline, ostensibly due to ongoing litigation in a court in Nebraska. It did not say when the consultation is likely to be concluded. From the Guardian.

British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak has reversed a decision that would have exempted most natural gas development from  environmental assessment. The exemption was issued by Order in Council Monday (April 14) and change the Reviewable Projects Regulation. The decision was then reversed a few days later, (April 16. The announcement came on the same day a group of B.C. officials were forced to leave a First Nations forum on liquefied natural gas in BC's north. The Minister has apologized for the decision, saying the government failed to discuss the amendment with First Nations. The reversal also rescinds the concurrent exemption granted to ski resort development From the Vancouver Sun.

A CBC News investigation has found a critical report that the National Energy board that the CBC says was 'effectively buried for several years' about a rupture on a trouble-prone TransCanada natural gas pipeline in Alberta. The incident raises questions about transparency and impartiality at the NEB. From the CBC. UPDATED:The NEB has issued a statement regarding the incident and the missing report.


British Columbia Premier Christy Clark bolstered mining's place in her economic platform by promising a review of the province's environmental assessment office to make it "more effective". But the Premier did not define effective. From the Vancouver Sun.

Get it right, get it done! Did TransCanada 'drop the ball' on the Keystone XL project? Although there are other factors that have helped to delay the project, it may be that a better approach to negotiation with land owners, strong community engagement, and just plain politeness could have gone a long way to seeing pipe being put in the ground by now. A recent CBC article highlights the problems created by the negotiating and community liaison tactics employed by the company's agents. As a case study of EIA practice, this project could stand out as an excellent illustration of 'how-not-to-do' community engagement. From the CBC.

Controversy and conflict reign in deliberations over Canadian energy projects. Speaking about protests in the US Alexander J. Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines at TransCanada said “I think it would be naive for any energy infrastructure company to think that this would be a flash in the pan;” (read the NYT article). EIA will help mitigate conflict and build public trust, but have changes to Canada federal EA law, and recent contentious project decisions and efforts by Canada's National Energy Board to limit public participation weakened public confidence, contributed to conflict, and created uncertainly and more problems for Canada's energy industries? One of the perverse outcomes of 'streamlined' environmental regulations may well be costly delays for energy projects.

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