Recent Developments with National and International Environmental Impact Assessment Processes

Environmental Impact Assessment in the Netherlands: The Paradox of Successful Application and Mediocre Reputation

Jules Scholten
Secretary General Commission For Environmental Impact Assessment

The EIA in the Netherlands

  • EIA was introduced formally in the Netherlands in 1987. Since then, more than 800 decision-making procedures were started with EIA and several hundred decisions were made with the support of EIA. The Dutch EIA process is characterized by the following provisions:
  • basement of the EIA process on clear legal provisions comprising statutory specifications on each of the following controls and safeguards;
  • definition of what constitutes the "environment" in conducting the EIA process;
  • clarity about the role of the stakeholders in the EIA process (i.e. proponent, decision-makers, the public and concerned non-governmental organizations (NGOs), expert advisors);
  • clarity about which decisions for which plans and actions should be subjected to the application of EIA (screening). This also includes clarity about any application for exemption from the obligation to carry out EIA in order to avoid possible misuse of an exemption clause;
  • certain "strategic" decisions, i.e. policies, plans, programmes as well as selection of sites for activities and routing decisions, are also subjected to the obligation to carry out EIA (SEA);
  • scoping of the activity with the objective to produce action-specific guidelines for environmental impact statements (EISs);
  • requirement to develop and describe reasonable alternative solutions to the proposed action or plan, including alternatives which are friendly to the environment through prevention, mitigation and compensation of adverse impacts on the environment;
  • requirements to describe all environmental impacts which may occur and may have a significant bearing on the decision-making;
  • public consultation during the stages of scoping and of review of the EIA-information prior to decision-making;
  • public review of the EIA information (EIS) concentrating on the question of sufficiency of the environmental information for the decision-making;
  • requirements to substantiate in the decision's record the way environmental concerns and impacts raised during the EIA-process, have been considered and taken into account in the decision (environmental acceptability);
  • monitoring and post-decision evaluation of the implementation and operation of the activity.

Evaluation of the Added Value of the Dutch EIA System

The Environmental Management Act prescribes that the legal provisions for EIA are evaluated and revised quinquennially. Hence, in 1996, the second evaluation was started and a survey was carried out about the influence of EIA to test the assumption that EIA is actually affecting decisions in the Netherlands. In that survey, questionnaires were sent to all stakeholders in a representative selection of about 100 EIA procedures that were concluded with a decision. The results showed that in 79 per cent of the cases, the respondents amongst the competent authorities and proponents agreed that EIA had produced a change of view (new relevant information) in relation to the activity, resulting in 52 percent of the cases in a direct effect, in the form of a changed proposal (additional mitigation or compensation measures or an alternative solution that is more friendly tot he environment, even including cancellation of the proposed activity. The survey also showed that in 71 per cent of the cases, EIA led to a more receptive attitude towards environmental issues which may bear fruit in future (indirect effect, such as influence in the long run on environmental attitudes, improvement of regulations, incentive to structural research and streamlining procedures).

Lastly, in about 70 percent of the cases, the respondents amongst competent authorities and proponents considered that the application of EIA had a positive net effect outweighing the extra time and resources spent on carrying out the EIA.

The results of the survey were even more positive than many would have expected. They clearly confirmed that EIA has considerable added value, both directly and indirectly in a majority of cases.

The Paradox of EIA

In spite of the positive outcome of the survey, there are many elected national, provincial and municipal politicians who claims that EIA takes too much time and is too expensive, while the information its produces is not sufficiently tailored to the decision. Such statements can be heard so often, that delays in decision-making are often ascribed to EIA, without clear evidence that EIA is the culprit. In February 1995, when excessive rainfall in the catchments of the rivers Rhine and Meuse led to alarmingly high water levels in the floodplains of these rivers threatening to overflow its embankments, many politicians were quick to blame EIA for the near-disaster. In their opinion, for many years, EIA had delayed the necessary decision that should have been taken about strengthening the embankments. The accusations turned out false as the obligation to carry out EIA for decisions concerning strengthening river embankments only came into force in September 1994, thus shortly before the near-disaster.

This example shows that EIA can suffer from preconceived opinions resulting in a mediocre reputation in spite of the hard facts of good results.

There seems to be only one explanation for this paradox. In practice, there is an important difference between the openness and rationality that EIA regards as a prerequisite and the internal informality with which some elected politicians like to take their decisions according to preconceived views.

EIA starts by scoping the possible solutions that can be found for a well-defined problem during this process; the most relevant solution are selected and compared using verifiable, generally accepted criteria. Finally, the best solution is chosen. The whole procedure is open and all democratic safeguards and controls are applied. In political decision-making, it appears that alternative solutions are often considered up to the point when a more or less satisfactory solution can be identified. Informal negotiations seem to play an important part. Sometimes, viewpoints are adopted early on: these views are then justified by argument afterwards. In these situations, decision-makers may indeed regard EIA as a time- and money consuming obligation which has to be met before the plan or action can be put into effect.

Questions for the Workshop

  • Does the paradox described above also occur in other jurisdictions? If so, to which extent?
  • Is the explanation for the paradox presented above plausible? Are there any other reasonable explanations in the light of possible experiences in other jurisdictions?
  • What can be done to overcome the paradox and to improve the reputation of EIA with decision-makers? Although good quality of the various EIA products (scoping documents, EISs, review reports, etc.) is a prerequisite, it seems that good quality on its own is unable to solve the paradox. What else is needed?