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 Canadian EIA, 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
Brandon Gregg, Kevin Hanna, Bram Noble and Wanda Leung

News 2014

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.

NEW:  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.


BC 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". The Premier did not define effective. From the Vancouver Sun.

Did TransCanada 'drop the ball' on Keystone? 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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