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Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments

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Recent environmental regulations prioritise fast-tracking renewable energy projects and emphasize biodiversity offsets for a sustainable future. Image credit: SRK

Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments

Balancing environmental sustainability with economic and social demands is always challenging, and South Africa is grappling with an ever more complex regulatory framework as it tries to walk this line.

The country has a well- established legal foundation for assessing and managing environmental impacts, and this is regularly updated, extended, and modified.

Among recent changes to environmental regulations are those aimed at allowing renewable energy developments to be fast tracked, as well as a focus on the implementation of biodiversity offsets.

According to SRK Consulting partner and principal consultant Chris Dalgliesh Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes are differently affected particularly if the proposed project is in a renewable energy development zone (REDZ) or a strategic transmission corridor – areas earmarked for the development of infrastructure of this nature.

Streamlining renewables (Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments)

“If the project falls into either of these areas, there are different requirements for the EIA, meant to assist in streamlining the process for quicker implementation,” says Dalgliesh.

“The processes also differ depending on whether you are dealing with the energy generation component of the project, or the grid component – which often have to be assessed as separate EIA applications.”

Therefore, when considering projects for which environmental authorisation is sought through an EIA process, developers are confronted with multiple permutations of application processes, choosing those which best suit their development plans. The competent authority may also have their own interpretation of what the EIA applications must include.

Changing regulations (Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments)

“Even five years ago, the EIA options were comparatively straightforward,” says Sharon Jones, partner and principal environmental scientist at SRK Consulting. “Our more complex projects would require a scoping and EIA – or a ‘full’ EIA – while other projects required only the basic assessment process.”

These two processes still apply, but environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) now need to consider a host of other variables as the rules are continually updated. An indicator of the pace of change, Jones notes, is the high number of relevant new regulations, protocols and guidelines associated with EIA processes published in the Government Gazette each month.

Less flexibility (Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments)

A recent instance has been a court decision which will oblige renewable energy developers to conduct a single EIA process for a generating facility and its associated grid infrastructure – rather than splitting that into two applications for greater flexibility.

According to Kelly Armstrong, environmental consultant at SRK Consulting, this illustrates the importance of EAPs keeping track and abreast of what legal precedents are being set, as well as the regulatory updates and competent authorities’ interpretation of the rapidly changing legislative landscape.

Jones adds that, in their efforts to streamline new power generation capacity, renewable energy developers have tried to cluster their EIA applications to facilitate the authorisation process. For example, they propose clusters of renewable energy developments, each with a separate EIA process but a single combined stakeholder engagement process at the time – leading to EAPs attempting to manage up to 20 EIA processes concurrently. These activities can, however, quickly become disjointed or misaligned as requirements change.

Timeframes (Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments)

“Consultants and EAPs must navigate this legal terrain very carefully, to keep abreast of what is required,” says Jones. “The implications on project timelines can be significant, as many aspects of EIAs are time-consuming; a wind farm application relies on a bird and bat monitoring period of two years prior to the EIA being completed.”

The cumulative momentum of all the changes to environmental regulations, warns Dalgliesh, had led to a situation where it is now more difficult to achieve EIA compliance in South Africa than it is to comply with international standards.

“Our processes have become much more complex, and we need to consider substantial allied legislation. While our legal evolution is well-intended, there is a danger that EAPs have to spend so much time learning the new EIA rules that they are being distracted from actually doing EIAs in an efficient manner,” says Dalgliesh.

Biodiversity offsets (Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments)

Jones points out that another recent change relates to the country’s first National Biodiversity Offset Guidelines – which will also have to be considered in EIA applications. After many years in the pipeline, these guidelines were published in June for implementation, and apply to both terrestrial and freshwater realms.

Armstrong says the guidelines will be applicable across sectors and, now that they are gazetted, will provide much clearer direction on how biodiversity offsets should be integrated into EIA processes.

“In addition to their existing compliance requirements, clients will be looking for guidance on what these biodiversity offsets mean for current or future development applications,” she says. “They will be relevant, for instance, if any project is located in areas where there are species of conservation concern and/or protected areas.”

Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments

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Complexity meets uncertainty in SAs Environmental Impact Assessments

 

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