Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a structured analytical report (a document that examines various issues relevant to a particular topic). It is prepared when a development may significantly impact the quality of the human environment—the area's air, water, or land environments.
The official definition of an environmental impact statement according to the International Association for Impact Assessment is “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.” Put another way, an environmental impact statement is intended to indicate how the project will likely affect the environment. If it is realized that the proposed development could damage the environment, the statement should present alternatives.
The purpose of an environmental impact statement is to allow agencies that are responsible for approving the particular project to have a clear understanding of how the project will influence the environment. With this information in hand, they then make their decision to approve the
project, reject it, or call for modifications that will help safeguard the environment. Human development changes the environment. A well-prepared environmental impact statement helps guide the development so that damage is minimal. Development in the absence of this reasoned consideration of the adverse effects can be disastrous.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
In the United States, environmental impact statements were created with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by Congress in 1969. The need for the statements in the approval of federal government developments became law a year later.
Then, as now, an environmental impact statement is necessary in the approval process for developments that may significantly affect “the human environment,” quoting the legislation. The human environment is a broad concept. The downtown core of a bustling metropolis like New York City or Los Angeles is definitely a human environment. But so is relatively unpopulated northern Alberta, Canada, where the development of a vast region to extract oil from the sandy ground (the Tar Sands) generates noxious byproducts that pollute the water and air. It can be argued that any development that affects Earth affects the human environment.
A typical environmental impact statement has four sections. The first section is a justification for the proposed development, and it explains the need and rationale for the development. The second section provides a description of the environment that could be affected by the development. The third section presents alternatives to the proposed development. This section is helpful to those evaluating the statement, since it provides them with options to consider and shows that the development's proponents have considered all the options. Finally, the fourth section analyzes how each of the approaches could affect the environment.
Development projects can be approved even though the environmental impact statement has recognized that environmental harm will be done. As long as the harm is known and understood in advance, plans can be made to minimize or confine the damage.
Not all projects require an environmental impact statement prepared as part of their approval. If the activity is not likely to be harmful to the environment, then the approval process requires that a less detailed document— called an environmental assessment—be prepared.
Part of the power of an environmental impact statement is its public nature. Even before a statement is prepared, anyone can notify officials of points of interest that they think should be addressed. The first version of the statement is a public document, and anyone can comment on it. Even when the final environmental impact statement has been issued, discussion can continue and contentious parts of the statement can be revised or an explanation provided of why a recommendation from earlier discussions was not adopted. In addition, the final statement can be contested in court in an effort to halt the development.
Impacts and Issues
The NEPA style of environmental impact statement has been the model for similar programs at the state and municipal levels, and in other countries including Canada and the European Community.
A recent example of the power of an environmental impact statement is the reaction to a statement filed in July 2007 by EnCana Corporation, a world leader in the discovery and recovery of natural gas based in Calgary, Alberta. The company prepared an environmental impact statement for the drilling of more than 1,200 wells in the Suffield National Wildlife Area, a 177-square-mi (458-square-km) protected region in the southern part of the province. Opponents of the development pointed out hundreds of omissions or lack of information that they say makes the claims of environmental safety in the developed region dubious. The opposition has prompted Environment Canada to investigate and coordinate public hearings on the development. As combative as this process can be, it helps ensure protection of the developed region and its wildlife.
WORDS TO KNOW
EXTINCTION: The total disappearance of a species or the disappearance of a species from a given area.
MITIGATION: To make changes to alleviate a situation or condition. For example, to implement changes that will reduce greenhouse gases.
Another well-known example of the influence of an environmental impact statement occurred in the 1980s in the northwestern region of the United States. An environmental impact statement for a proposed logging operation in an old growth forest on federal government lands was contested by the Sierra Club on the basis that the development would threaten species already at risk of extinction, in particular the northern spotted owl(Strix occidentalis caurina). The opposition prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the owl a threatened species. Because logging in national forests would threaten the habitat of the owl, this activity was stopped in 1991.
Because an environmental impact statement can potentially delay and even stop a development, some developers may see the statement as a necessary hurdle to be overcome to gain project approval. This can produce a statement that is so loaded with detail that it is hard to understand and, thus, to criticize.
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“EnCana's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Severely Lacking.” Federation of Alberta Naturalists, July 30, 2007 < http://fanweb.ca/issues/suffield/news-releases/encanas-environmental-impact-statement-eis-severely-lacking> (accessed November 13, 2007).
“NEPA: Past, Present, and Future.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, September 21, 2007 < http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/nepa/01.htm> (accessed November 13, 2007).