Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Environmental Impact Assessment: A Critical Review of New Zealand Practice


Environmental Impact Assessment: A Critical Review of New Zealand Practice
Author Affiliation


This paper is a report on the implementation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) framework in New Zealand. The paper argues that New Zealand has been able to adopt and adapt the EIA framework to suit its need. The discussion introduces the basic principles of EIA before applying them to the political will, legislative arrangements and oil/gas industries of New Zealand. It concludes that the country has developed a bespoke but effective approach to implementing EIA.
Keywords: Environmental Impact Assessment, New Zealand, Oil and Gas Industry

Table of Contents



1.1 Background Information

The use of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is standard practice in most developed nations (Boshier, 1998). EIA helps in ‘identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made (Association for Impact Assessment in cooperation with Institute of Environmental Assessment, 1999, p. 3). It is the instrument through which policy makers can accurately predict and project the impact of any given activity on the environment (Clark & Canter, 1997). EIA assesses impacts in both social and economic contexts.  For example it can examine the impact of activities on women in development as well as biodiversity (Fookes, 2000). In effect EIA is an instrument of sustainable development, acknowledging the need to make use of the earth’s resources while at the same time managing the risk of over-exploitation (Clark & Canter, 1997). EIA is often a dealmaker or breaker for projects and is therefore often included in bidding documents and feasibility studies particularly where the state is involved in either sanctioning or funding the affected projects (Glasson, Therivel, & Chadwick, 2005).

1.2 Objectives and Structure

This paper aims to highlight the ways in which EIA can be used to promote sustainable development. It will first determine the broad principles that underpin EIA. The paper will then describe the context of New Zealand, critically assessing the ways in which EIA has been implemented. Finally the paper will determine the extent to which the country has been successful in its implementation of EIA and what lessons can be learnt in terms of developing localized EIA protocols for other nations.

1.3 Thesis and Relevance

New Zealand has embraced EIA as a social, economic and political tool (Sadler B. , 2001). In doing so the country has become a model of best practice. Therefore this paper is premised on the thesis that New Zealand has been largely successful in the following ways: understanding the practices and impetus of EIA; using the relevant protocols to design policy initiatives within the country: making use of EIA as a comprehensive assessment tool for past, current and future projects; and adapting the principles of EIA to the local context (Taylor & Smith, 1997). This paper is limited by the fact that it focuses on a single country. However, its findings may be relevant to other nations that seek to achieve sustainable development.


2.1 Basic Principles

One of the distinguishing features of EIAs is the fact that they do not depend on a pre-set outcomes or minimum standards (Morgan, 1998). Rather EIAs require that policy and decision makers create an accountability trail for the projected effects of any proposed schemes (Noble, 2006). Inevitably project sponsors must justify them in light of the objective projections of the impact they have on the environment (Smith, 1993). This may mean engaging in an extensive period of consultation and welcoming public comment (Wells & Fookes, 1988). EIA is both a technical and practical tool that engages stakeholders in various forums.  However there is a tendency for project sponsors to focus on compliance and problem-avoidance (Wood, 1995). This is not the spirit of EIAs which must inherently open the way to finding solutions for the risks to the environment which have been identified.

2.2 Methods and Approaches

The standard EIA process incorporates screening; scoping; evaluation of alternatives; impact analysis; mitigation; evaluation of significance; reporting; review; decision-making; and follow-up (SenĂ©cal, Goldsmith, Conover, Sadler, & Brown, 1999, p. 4).  EIA distinguishes between the Polluter and Precautionary. The polluter consists of the group of stakeholders who propose to engage in an activity that might impact on the environment. The precautionary consists of stakeholders who wish to prevent, minimize or mitigate such impacts (RMIT University & UNU Online Learning, 2014, p. 4).  Despite localized variations EIA normally covers industrial production; genetic modification; fuzzy logic operations; and follow-up protocols (Jiang & Kaye, 2000).  Typically EIA will involve undertaking a Product Environmental Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) which assesses the impact of various production processes including equipment, raw materials, processing, usage, ancillary equipment and disposal (RMIT University & UNU Online Learning, 2014, p. 5). The introduction of genetically modified products on various pilot schemes has necessitated a review of EIA in order to reflect this new production process (Kenny, et al., 2000). Examples of protocols used include INOVA and GMP-RAM. Often the outcomes of these assessments are used to address public concerns about both environmental and public health impacts (Boshier, 1998). It is acknowledged that many impacts are qualitative rather than quantitative. Examples include social acceptance, quality of life and aesthetic landscaping (Morgan, 1998). Therefore EIA uses Fuzzy Logic as a means of incorporating these elements into the assessment. Community sentiments and the views of experts in the field are often used to approximate the impact of specific activities (Wells & Fookes, 1988).

2.3 Review and Updates

One of the critical aspects of EIA is to have a follow-up process. This phase is designed to assess whether the projections and predictions have come to pass as well as the extent to which they are valid (Glasson, Therivel, & Chadwick, 2005). The comparative analysis between expectations and empirical evidence ensures that EIAs remain relevant to the community and are constantly updated to reflect new challenges.  Normally an audit process is designed to cover both Scientific and Management aspects. The scientific element considers the objective accuracy of the predictions as well as giving the experts an opportunity to explain any errors. The management aspects are then used to evaluate any mitigation steps that have been taken in light of the impacts that were presented in the original EIA (Noble, 2006). The actual implementation of EIA allows the stakeholders to either opt for a full null hypothesis (considered to be the more rigorous assessment) or to use a basic comparative analysis (Sadler B. , 1996). It is important to note that the EIA follow-up may also be used to decide whether to reject or modify the project. Alternatively the precautionary may require strict liability insurance that covers the eventualities (Anardarko NZ Taranaki Company, 2013).

2.4 Costs and Benefits

Sadler (1996) has identified five guideposts for assessing the status and effectives of EIA: These include practices, learning, relativity, pragmatism and accomplishments (p. 3).  The nature of EIAs means that they have been associated with costs which critics use to discourage their use. For example the extensive consultation with the public means that lay people who are not fully conversant with the technical issues of environmental management are given an opportunity to potentially create costly delays for essential projects (Clark & Canter, 1997). On the other hand the supporters of EIAs might argue that these delays are a necessary evil particularly if the consultation enables the public to get more engaged in the process of managing and protecting the environment (Sadler B. , 1996). Others might argue that EIAs should be treated in the same way that other aspects of feasibility studies (acceptability, viability and appropriateness) are handled. Thus they become part and parcel of the project justification which will ultimately ensure long term success and the support of the community (Wells & Fookes, 1988). Nevertheless EIAs have been criticized for lacking detail and depth, particularly when compared to traditional Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). Clark and Canter (1997, pp. 199-200) go as far as noting that EIAs have become a popular shortcut and replacement for EISs. However, it is worth noting that EIAs actually save time and money by allowing decision-makers to get an overview of the potential environmental issues before deciding whether to go for a full EIS process (Rychlak & Case, 2010, pp. 115-116).

2.5 New Zealand

            It has been suggested that the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED)[1] of 1992 was the first time that the international community really spoke about environment al issues. Having attracted 10,000 participants from 176 different countries, UNCED came up with 5 resolutions, two of which were binding (Puhlmann, 2006, p. 2). However there are examples of nations that started much earlier on the objective of achieving “an environmentally sustainable global economy(Puhlmann, 2006, p. 3). The success or otherwise of implementing EIA can be illustrated by making reference to New Zealand, a Dualist Nation that requires domestic ratification of international treaties by primary legislation before they become operational. This is a country that has implemented the broad principles of EIA. It started with the political will when then translated into actual legislation before application in particular industries. The oil and gas industry is used as an example here. However there are many other sectors that are subject to EIA directly or indirectly (Morgan R. K., 1995).  The Environment Act of 1986 required that a “full and balanced account is taken of all values (Hill, 1988, p. 128). In fact the control of gorse (a particularly challenging weed) in New Zealand is a prime example of local authorities taking action to achieve this objective. The scope of such a requirement meant that New Zealand had an onerous task to give its legislative agenda practical meaning by application whether on a national or on a local level.

2.5.1 Political Will

New Zealand has adopted the basic principles of EIA under its comprehensive Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE). The adoption and adaptation processes started with the publication of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Procedures (EPEP) in 1974. It is clear from the outset that New Zealand was not only interested in identifying the potential environmental impacts of any given procedures but went as far as creating proposals for mitigating risks and enhancing the status of the environment (Fookes, 2000). Consequently not only would negative impacts be minimized if the report was used to modify processes but there would also be avenues for ensuring that the environment was much better off after the processes had been undertaken. Polluters may have had a valid complaint against the stringent conditions of EPEP which often exceed those of Commonwealth countries like India (Sadler B. , 2001). In any case these first procedures amounted nothing more tha cabinet minutes and critically did not have legal force. However, they laid the foundation for regulating the conduct of government agencies in as far as they would engage in processes that are akin to EIA as we know it today.

2.5.2 Legislation

In the pre-1991 era New Zealand had what amounted to “a large body of resource-related statutes with no uniform structure (Puhlmann, 2006, p. 16). The Environmental Enhancement and Protection Procedures of 1970 sought to create a set of minimum standards that would be used to incorporate environmental issues into development programs. This was a procedural document that did not have the full weight of a comprehensive act of parliament (Wheen, 2002). This was then followed by the Environment Act of 1986 which established some of the institutions that would be responsible for monitoring compliance including the Ministry of the Environment (MfE) as well as a parliamentary commissioner (PCE). The Conservation Act 1987 was an important milestone in as far as it sought to protect the biodiversity of New Zealand. That act is also notable for the establishment of the Department of Conservation (DoC) with a special focus on the protection of game and fisheries (Wheen, 2002).
 The country then progressed on the EIA front with the passage of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991 (Parliamentary Counsel Office, 2014b). This law required EIA certification as part of a comprehensive resource consent application. The law called for AEE reports that include information which “correspondents with the scale and significance of the effects that the activity may have upon the environment[2]. It is clear that the government recognized the different scales and seriousness of environmental impact. Therefore it developed a sliding scale which was designed to address the different levels of environmental impact depending on the activities of the polluter (Coull & Bamform, 2012). RMA has been criticized for not including a specific duty to consult despite its references to the public consultation paradigms of the Treaty of Waitangi Principles (Boshier, 1998). However in practice local authorities have relied on Schedule 4 of Section 36a to require proof of public consultation. Furthermore section 93 of RMA sets out the minimum considerations during the decision-making process. The implementation of RMA shows that the strict letter of the law in New Zealand may not adequately address all the issues of environmental protection but in practice the precautionary authorities try to creatively use the legislative regime in order to achieve these outcomes nonetheless. Perhaps New Zealand may get even better results by insisting on clear codification under a single Act of Parliament.
The post-RMA era was marked by a series of legislative devices that were designed to complement and implement existing sustainable development programs. For example the Fisheries Act of 1996 attempted to create a paradigm through which commercial fishing could take place but bearing in mind the provisions of RMA. This particular act has been criticized for a disjointed implementation that never completely achieved the original objectives of the law (Wheen, 2002).  On the other hand the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 recognized the role of human industrial activity and aggressive foreign species in degrading the environment of New Zealand. The Land Transport Act of 1998 looked forward to some of the issues that would concern modern environmental policy makers including emissions and public health. It is not entirely clear that these legislative devices were comprehensive enough to serve as meaningful alternatives to RMA but their enactment showed that the government was serious about creating a framework of environmental protection and sustainable development. They are also notable for creating some of the key criteria that would eventually define the EIA framework for New Zealand.

2.5.3 Practice

Most of the implementation was at local level and the central government chose an arms-length approach to the UNCED principles. For example:
The New Zealand Government has strongly encouraged local governments to meet Agenda 21 standards. Many cities such as Hamilton, Christchurch, and Waitekere have successfully incorporated Agenda 21 at local level (Puhlmann, 2006, p. 17).
The downside to such an approach is that it encourages disjointed and disparate implementation at a local level without any form of central coordination or control. New Zealand is also noted for not focusing on sustainable development as the overriding objective of EIA. Consequently there is no clearly defined framework for changing consumer attitudes and actions in areas such as recycling.  One of the key scenes for the implementation of the EIA framework was the transition from the Mark I system to the Mark II system. The Mark II system was characterized by reference to local conditions and requirements before incorporation national standards under the federal system of government (Wood C. , 2002, p. 14). New Zealand was not as successful as Australia partly because of its weaker regional infrastructures. It operated more in keeping with a Mark I system that might have focused on the creation of a minimum standard.
The oil and gas industry is illustrative of the progress that New Zealand has made during this transition: In 2009 the government released the Petroleum Action Plan (PAP) which defined the framework under which EIA would be applied to the Oil and Energy Industry (Coull & Bamform, 2012). PAP differed from the earlier Crown Minerals Act (CMA) of 1991 in as far as it did not concentrate on the possibilities of making exploitation more efficient but also included core elements of EIA. Nevertheless PAP has been criticized for putting environmental issues on the peripheral rather than making it a central issue within the industry activities (Coull & Bamform, 2012).  However, it is important to note that PAP was an important milestone in the attempts to transform the industry into an environmentally-conscious one. For example it allowed for a differentiated regime of permits based on the potential to pollute. It also had a pre-qualification process that precluded environmentally unfriendly projects. Furthermore PAP removed the exclusion from having to gain ministerial consent for certain mining activities under Section 41 of CMA (Parliamentary Counsel Office, 2014a).  Moreover PAP encouraged deeper community engagement with interested parties including the Iwi/Maori. The government has also sought to incorporate EIA into offshore petroleum mining activities as evidenced by the introduction of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (EEZ) Act of 2012 (Parliamentary Counsel Office, 2013). The Marine Consent from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an example of how EEZ encourages more consultation with the public along the lines of EIA. The success of the regulatory reform agenda incorporating EIA into the activities of the oil and gas industry is exemplified by the detailed assessment process for the Taranaki Basin Exploration Well (Anardarko NZ Taranaki Company, 2013). It is inconceivable that such a detailed report could have been prepared with specific EIA requirements.


This paper has shown that New Zealand has adopted the basic principles of EIA. However, rather than taking a wholesale approach the country has opted to adapt EIA in such a way as to address local environmental needs. If the fundamental aim of EIA was to create uniformity across the globe then clearly New Zealand has not taken that approach. On the other hand if the aim was to set up minimum standards that would guide policy makers then New Zealand is a success. Its transition into an EIA regime started with the political will as expressed in the ministerial statement. The country then moved on to actual legislation that was regularly updated in order to address new challenges. This is a case of a nation that is able to give practical meaning to a theoretical environmental management model.



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[1] Also known as the “Earth Summit” of Rio di Janeiro, Brazil
[2] See Section 88 of the Resource Management Act 1991. 

1 comment:

  1. This paper was written by me in its entirety but I suspect that it is being plagiarized by a student. Please contact me for further details.