Green light for EU impact assessment rules

Governments agree rules for environmental evaluation, consultation, of strategic plans

EU environment ministers yesterday approved a plan to require strategic infrastructure development plans to undergo environmental evaluation similar to that already required for construction projects under the 1985 environmental impact assessment (EIA) directive.

The deal on the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) directive was unanimously supported by member states but opposed by the European Commission, which said its proposals had been weakened too much. The dossier will now receive its second reading in the European parliament.

The proposals relate to strategic plans and programmes developed by national, regional and local authorities in the following sectors: agriculture, fisheries, energy, industry, transport, waste management, water management, telecommunications, tourism, town and country planning, and land use. Financial or budgetary plans are specifically excluded.

Ministers agreed that an SEA should be carried out on any plan in the above sectors that "sets the framework for future development consent of projects" - in other words, those which give rise to one or more individual construction projects. Plans in other sectors would require an SEA only if the member state believed they would have "significant environmental effects".

In practice, a regional or national waste management plan aiming at the best way to locate future incineration facilities would have to be assessed for its overall environmental effects as well as those of the individual installations. However, a conceptual plan aiming to determine whether a country or region should pursue incineration over landfilling as a waste management strategy would not need an SEA.

Assessments would consist of publication of a report detailing a plan's expected environmental consequences followed by public consultation. National authorities would then be obliged to "take into account" the assessment before any decision to implement the plan.

The European Commission is unhappy with the deal because it wanted SEA requirements to apply to all strategic plans rather than being limited to named sectors. Member states insisted on the change, arguing that it would help to provide legal certainty.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111. References: The meeting conclusions are posted on the Council's web site.

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