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EU: Impact assessment of projects now simplified

New legislation simplifying the rules for assessing the potential effects of projects on the environment entered into force. The newly amended Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive will offer better protection for the environment while reducing administrative burdens stemming from EU law, in line with the European Commission’s drive for smarter regulation. It will also enhance business certainty where public and private investments are concerned.

The new approach focuses on risks and challenges that have emerged since the original rules came into force some 25 years ago. This means more attention to areas such as resource efficiency, climate change and disaster prevention, which are now better reflected in the assessment process.

The main amendments are as follows:

  • Member States now have a mandate to simplify their various environmental assessment procedures.
  • Timeframes are introduced for the different stages of environmental assessments: screening decisions should be taken within 90 days (although extensions are possible in exceptional cases) and public consultations should last at least 30 days. Members States also need to ensure that final decisions are taken within a reasonable period of time.
  • The screening procedure to determine whether or not an EIA is required has been simplified. Decisions must be duly motivated in the light of the updated screening criteria.
  • EIA reports are to be made clearer for the public, especially as regards assessments of the current state of the environment and the consideration of alternatives to the project being proposed.
  • The quality and the content of the reports will be improved. Competent authorities will also need to prove their objectivity, so as to avoid conflicts of interest.
  • The grounds for development consent decisions must be clear and made more transparent for the public. Member States may also set timeframes for the validity of any reasoned conclusions or opinions issued as part of the EIA procedure.
  • If projects do entail significant adverse effects on the environment, developers will be obliged to take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce such effects. These projects will need to be monitored using procedures determined by the Member States. Existing monitoring arrangements may be used to avoid duplication of monitoring and unnecessary costs.

Member States have to apply these rules as from 16 May 2017 at the latest. They also need to communicate to the Commission the national legislation adopted in order to comply with the Directive.

The EIA Directive aims to ensure that projects which are likely to have a significant effect on the environment are adequately assessed before they are approved. Hence, before any decision is taken to allow such a project to proceed, the possible impacts it may have on the environment (from either its construction or operation) are identified and assessed. The Directive also ensures the participation of the environmental authorities and the public in the environmental decision-making procedures. In particular, members of the public concerned must be given the opportunity to comment on the proposal(s) while all options are still open, i.e. before a final decision is taken on the request for development by the competent authority. When approving a project, the competent authority is required to take into consideration the results of consultations and to inform the public, notably on the measures envisaged to avoid, reduce or compensate for environmental impacts. The public must be informed of the development decision and can challenge it before the courts.

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