Regulatory assessments for licensing marine works: less is more

Assessing the environmental impacts of marine works is challenging, due to the many combinations of effects and impacts that can potentially affect multiple marine species, populations, habitats and nature conservation areas.

It is important for project managers and developers to understand the legal and regulatory framework and plan in advance to meet the regulatory requirements of the different government agencies and organizations involved in the licensing process.

Most major projects will require that a statutory environmental impact assessment (EIA) is undertaken to predict and, if necessary, minimise or avoid significant adverse impacts. An EIA is a systematic, evidence-based scientific judgement on the likelihood and magnitude of potential impacts on the marine environment.

As such, it should be a process of identifying, quantifying and evaluating the potential impacts of defined actions on ecosystems or their components. The purpose of an EIA is to provide the regulator and decision-makers with clear and concise information about the likely ecological effects associated with a project and their significance both directly and in a wider context.

‘Concise’ is what is often forgotten, and this is most commonly a consequence of inadequate selection (screening and scoping) of sensitive environmental receptors, actions or human activities that can potentially have an impact on these, and pathways connecting the two. A rigorous and systematic risk based approach should be used to identify at earlier stages which are the relevant potential impacts, to enable a transparent, evidence-based and scientifically robust assessment. Time and efforts should be focused on undertaking a high resolution analysis of those potentially significant impacts, to provide the evidence base required to inform and support regulatory decisions.

Too often, failure to identify which are these potentially significant impacts are results in EIAs in which too much consideration is given to trivial risks, and not enough to the really serious ones. Regulators, decision makers and scientists working in government agencies are too familiar with one frequent consequence of this: environmental statements presented in several volumes, often above one thousand pages, plus figures and appendices. This makes finding and evaluating the relevant information – trawling across thousands of pages, tables, chapters and appendices – a tedious task. Furthermore, it is very common to find that there is too much information about impacts that are either unlikely or not of significant magnitude, and not enough about those that really matter.

The most common outcome is that further information, surveys, tests or analyses (or a combination of these) is required to establish the likelihood and significance of potentially significant adverse impacts with certainty.
Most marine projects – including major infrastructure developments – involve only a few activities or actions that can potentially lead to significant adverse impacts after effective mitigation measures are in place. It is therefore essential to identify these correctly during the initial stages of the project, through the processes of screening and scoping. Early engagement with the regulator and its scientific advisors is also essential to ensure that the screening and scoping stages result in a clear set of relevant assessments, and that these are undertaken to the required level of detail.

More focus and clarity will always lead to better results in marine licensing.

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