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.  In Canada recent changes to federal legislation and some provincial systems may compromise the capacity of EIA to help environmental management, mitigate risks and impacts, maximize benefits, and improve and support development.

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.

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. 

We aim to provide applied and practical information that can help in the development and improvement of EIA and the advancement of best practices in the private and public sectors.

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


A U.S.  National Research Council committee opened a second investigation of potential environmental consequences from diluted bitumen (dilbit) spills from pipelines. It quickly became apparent that this committee would encounter similar problems balancing the need to keep the inquiry manageable while addressing a sufficiently wide range of questions.

Committee members noted that available incident data have improved since the earlier committee issued its findings in late June 2013 based on information from 2002 to 2011. NRC is one of the U.S. government’s national scientific academies.

Information was still being gathered from a 2010 dilbit spill from an Enbridge pipeline rupture near Marshall, Mich., while the first committee was doing its work. It issued its final report a few months after an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying dilbit began to leak on Mar. 29, 2013.

Findings from investigations of both of these incidents are significantly more informative than what previous inquiries produced, according to University of Michigan Energy Institute Director Mark Barteau, who helped lead the earlier NRC committee’s investigation. From the Oil and Gas journal.


+Kinder surprise? Kinder Morgan has admitted it provided incorrect GPS co-ordinates when it initially sought a court order to prevent protests at a test drilling site for its proposed oil pipeline through part of the Canadian city of Burnaby. At one location, the co-ordinates were so inaccurate that the actual work site was entirely outside the area covered by the injunction. The Texas-based company went to court in Vancvouer on Thursday asking that the injunction, which is set to expire on Dec. 1, be extended to Dec. 12. Not only was the extension denied, but the judge, who had raised serious concerns about the GPS errors, ended the hearing by inviting Kinder Morgan's lawyer to drop the civil contempt proceedings against protesters. The company then applied to have the cases withdrawn and the judge granted the application. The lesson for EA practice? This may be another example of 'get it right, get it done'. Read the Vancouver Sun story, click here.

+The US Senate finally debated a bill authorizing construction of the proposed Keystone XL crude oil pipeline on Nov. 18 before rejecting the measure by a single vote. Republicans vowed to bring the measure back once they assume majority control in January 2015. From the Oil and Gas Journal.


+In October Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) issued an order granting the Trans Mountain pipeline company access to Burnaby Mountain to complete technical studies related to the company’s proposed oil pipeline.

The order prevents the City of Burnaby from blocking Trans Mountain from carrying out surveys and technical studies. The Board also ruled that it has the legal authority to consider constitutional questions relating to its own jurisdiction. This may become the subject of further legal actions.

In the ruling, the Board determined that the NEB Act provides the jurisdiction and the authority to determine that these specific City of Burnaby bylaws are not applicable. Under the Canadian Enviornmental Assessment Act a proponent may not  proceed with work until the EA process is complete and permission granted. The NEB is allowing the surveys and studies on the basis that they are required to make a recommendation to the federal government about whether or not the project should proceed. The NEB believes that preventing full access to Burnaby Mountain would be contrary to the purpose of the NEB Act. Visit the NEB website.

+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 practice in Canada and for the prospects for contnetious devleopment applications in BC, such as Enbridge's Northern 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. Federal approval (June 17) may be seen as a major step forward for the proponent, Calgary-based Enbridge, but uncertainty still clouds the controversial initiative. It would pipe Alberta bitumen through northern B.C. to the Pacific and then through B.C.'s coastal waters in supertankers. A second pipeline would transport bitumen solvent back to Alberta. The project will require approval from the B.C. government and will likely require agreement from key First Nations. Click here to see the 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.

+The National Energy board (NEB) has the power to prosecute or impose fines. But according to its own records Canada’s NEB is spending months, and in some cases years, in discussions with Canadian pipeline companies about events and issues that break federal rules. 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 U.S. 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". The BC 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, 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 important energy projects.

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