Posts Tagged Environmental Impact assessment

Ready steady, flare? The ECJ in Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen limits the scope of ‘commercial’ yet insists on strict cumulation test.

In a judgment undoubtedly with consequences for the fracking industry in the EU, the ECJ held yesterday in Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen, Case C-531/13. Rohöl-Aufsuchungs AG had obtained authorisation to undertake exploratory drilling within the territory of the Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen (Austria)  up to a depth of 4 150 metres, without environmental impact assessment. The Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen and 59 other persons have challenged that decision before the Verwaltungsgerichtshof (Administrative Court).

The EIA Directive‘s key element is that not all projects are subject to mandatory EAI. Only projects listed in Annex I of the Directive are subject to a mandatory EIA. Annex I lists for example crude-oil refineries, thermal and nuclear power stations which fulfill certain production or output thresholds. Projects listed in Annex II of the Directive, are subject to a screening procedure of the Member States. Screening is commonly referred to as the process by which a decision is taken on whether or not an EIA is required for a particular project. The competent authority in the Member States can make this decision either based on a case-by-case examination or by establishing thresholds or criteria, or both.

‘Extraction of petroleum and natural gas for commercial purposes where the amount extracted exceeds 500 tonnes/day in the case of petroleum and 500 000 cubic metres/day in the case of gas’ is included in Annex I, sub 14. However the Court held that exploratory drilling even if by nature it is ‘commercial’ (lest it be carried out purely for research purposes), does not meet the conditions of Annex I entry 14, for that provision links the obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment to the quantities of petroleum and natural gas earmarked for extraction. Prior to an exploratory drilling operation, the actual presence of hydrocarbons cannot be determined with certainty. An exploratory drilling operation is carried out in order to establish the presence of hydrocarbons and, where they are found, to determine the quantity and ascertain, through a trial production, whether or not a commercial operation is feasible. Thus, it is only on the basis of an exploratory drilling operation that the quantity of hydrocarbons that can be extracted per day can be determined. Moreover, the quantity of hydrocarbons earmarked for extraction in such a trial, as well as its duration, are restricted to the technical needs arising from the objective of establishing the feasibility of a deposit.

No mandatory EIA therefore on the basis of Annex I. However, Annex II, in entry 2 d), includes ‘Deep drillings, in particular:(i) geothermal drilling;(ii) drilling for the storage of nuclear waste material; (iii) drilling for water supplies; with the exception of drillings for investigating the stability of the soil’. Exploratory drilling falls under that entry. With reference to previous case-law, the ECJ emphasises that notwithstanding the discretion enjoyed by national authorities vis-a-vis projects included in Annex II, the characteristics of a project must be assessed, inter alia, in relation to its cumulative effects with other projects. Failure to take account of the cumulative effect of one project with other projects must not mean in practice that they all escape the obligation to carry out an assessment when, taken together, they are likely to have significant effects on the environment. With this approach the ECJ has countered the salami effect: the artificial splitting up of projects which do not individually meet EIA thresholds but which do so on a cumulative basis.

There are roughly 30 probes for gas extraction within the area of the Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen. The ECJ does not take the final decision as to whether an EIA therefore had to be carried out, for that is for the national court to be decided, however it is quite likely that the cumulative effect of these 30 probes does lead to a requirement for EIA (which will have to look beyond municipal borders) once it started being clear that the area concerned is a hotbed for such exploratory drillings.

Geert.

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Supreme Court goes Jules Verne and crosses the HS2 Bridge at high speed. Aarhus, SEA, EIA and supremacy of EU law all fail to make an impact.

In Chapter XXVIII of Jules Verne’s Around the world in Eighty Days, the train driver, egged on by enthusiastic US passengers and despite objections by Passepartout, reverses his train to cross a wobbly bridge (successfully) at high speed. With all passengers on board. It is a favourite chapter of mine and one which comes in handily in risk management classes.

In HS2 Action Alliance v Secretary of State for Transport, the United Kingdom Supreme Court took inspiration from Chapter XXVIII in dismissing all arguments based on the Aarhus Convention, the EIA Directive, the SEA Directive, and supremacy of EU law. These arguments were raised against the UK Government’s  ‘Command paper’, “High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps” . The command papers sets in motion the reality of the development of the HSs high speed rail link between the South of England, the north and Scotland.

Lord Carnwath summarised the legal issues as follows (at 15):

i) SEA whether the DNS in the circumstances of HS2 is a “plan or programme” which “sets the framework for development consent” and was “required by administrative provisions” within the meaning of articles 2-3 of Directive 2001/42/EC (“the SEA Directive”).

ii) Aarhus whether if the interpretation of the majority in the Court of Appeal is correct, article 3(2)(a) of the SEA Directive is inconsistent with article 7 of the Aarhus Convention, and if so with what consequences.

iii) EIA/Hybrid Bill whether the Hybrid Bill procedure as proposed meets the requirements of Directive 2011/92/EU (“the EIA Directive”), taking account in particular that (a) issues of principle will be excluded from the Select Committee stage, and (b) the debate on the Bill at Second and Third Reading will be subject to a Government whip.

iv) Timing whether the court should intervene at this stage, or whether the court should wait until the Parliamentary process is completed;

v) CJEU reference whether any of the above questions raise uncertain issues of European law on which a reference should be made to the European court.

David Hart QC superbly summarises the Court’s findings and much of its reasoning over at the Human Rights blog and I am happy to refer my readers to him to get, well, up to speed on the judgment. I should simply like to point out that the Court’s boldness lies not so much in the merits of its decision, rather in the more or less belligerent wording and indeed telling off aimed at the Court of Justice.

With respect to Strategic Environmental Assessment – SEA [aimed at ensuring that environmental impacts are identified upstream, by ensuring that programs and plans which will lead to EIA-bound projects, are vetted themselves], a command paper formally does not set anything in stone about the ensuing (or not) development of the project which it will lead to. Much can still change and Members of Parliament have every right and prerogative to have the project amended or indeed scrapped altogether. However, clearly this is a project the realisation of which the government will want to ensure. It is in my view not merely ‘policy’, but a proper plan. Whence in reality this is exactly the kind of program which the SEA Directive had in mind when pressing for impact assessment upstream. Like the train carrying Passepartout et al, the adoption of this Command Paper has set in motion developments which will be all but impossible to stop. With one step following logically from the other, the intentions addressed in the Command Paper display a high degree therefore of fait accompli. The intent and purpose of the SEA Directive in my view does require its application in casu. I appreciate however that intent and purpose as interpretative tool is met lukewarmly by the Supreme Court. (I grant moreover that the Supreme Court does justifiably criticise some of the ECJ’s case-law on the EIA Directive, where very clear provisions nevertheless were altered in their meaning by reference to intent and purpose. The ‘claris’ in ‘in claris non fit interpretatio’ clearly lies in the eye of the beholder).

Of particular EU institutional interest is the Supreme Court’s reference to the Bill of Rights (at 206), Parliamentary Sovereignty, and the 2013 Bundesverfassungsgericht’s judgment on  the Counter-Terrorism Database Act. (Translated by the SC in relevant part as as part of a co-operative relationship, a decision of the Court of Justice should not be read by a national court in a way that places in question the identity of the national constitutional order). The SC is right in pointing out the difficulty under the doctrine of separation of powers, of courts second-guessing not the way in which data were put before parliament, but rather how members of that parliament subsequently interpret and apply those data. More generally, though, in suggesting, when criticising the ECJ judgments on that role of the courts, to restrain the ECJ in its interpretative space, the Supreme Court inevitably joins the queue of national supreme courts which are jittery about the positioning of the ECJ (and the ECtHR) on their turf.

This judgment is of very high relevance both for EIA and SEA, and for EU Institutional law. No doubt much more to be chewed on.

Geert.

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Aarhus and costs recovery. The impact of the EIA Directive and the Convention post consent in Alyson Austin

Reminiscent of an earlier posting on costs, the High Court recently had to consider the impact of the EIA Directive on cost orders. Mrs Austin lives close to an opencast mining and reclamation site in Wales. She complains of noise from heavy machinery and dust, affecting her home and preventing her family from sleeping. Planning consent had been granted in 2005.  Mrs Austin’s current action is based on private nuisance proceedings, based inter alia on the allegation that some of the conditions attached to the consent have not been complied with. The claim therefore is related to post-EIA compliance and the order sought by Mrs Austin is one to limit her costs.

Milwyn Jarman QC held – upon assist by James Pereira and Jack Connah) – that direct applicability of the Aarhus Convention in the UK is limited to those parts which have been incorporated in the EU’s EIA Directive  [‘otherwise, it remains a matter to be taken into account (…) in resolving ambiguities or in exercising discretions’ – a narrow view perhaps, albeit supported by UK precedent, on the impact of the Convention in the UK’s legal order] and that the Directive itself, as far as its impact on costs is concerned, sees upon judicial review proceedings in the process of EIA-based consent only, not an action in private nuisance post such consent.

Leave to appeal was granted and shall be heard end of June. The Aarhus Committee itself is also considering the issue and will proceed with findings in 2014.

This issue has exercised various courts and officials in the UK for some time. The 2014 developments are eagerly awaited.

Geert.

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Aarhus watch: a UK breach, and a fudge

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee shows its teeth. Coyly, perhaps, and not quite with definitive results. But it does show its teeth. Also an interesting reference to the inadequacy of judicial review. Geert.

UK Human Rights Blog

023stirling1DM_468x312ACCC/C/2012/68 read draft findings here and ACCC/C/2010/45 read findings here

Two interesting decisions from the Geneva-based Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) about whether the UK planning system complies with the UN-ECE Aarhus Convention.

The first was given excellent recent coverage in the Independent – a Scottish wind farm case where UK plans for renewable energy had not received the public consultation which Article 7 of the Convention required. The second, which promised much (see my previous post), ducked the issues in a rather unsatisfactory way.

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Compensation, nature conservation and New York Law – The USSC in Koontz

In Koontz, the United States Supreme Court further specified the limitations applicable to agencies when they  impose limitations to the use of private property. In Koontz, under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), the owner of the land was denied wetland related permits. The relevant agency had demanded that Koontz either reduce the scope of the project and accept limiting conditions of use over the remainder, or finance conservation-related improvements to publicly held land some distance away.

The Supreme Court had earlier held in Nolan per the regulatory taking doctrine, that there must be an “essential nexus” between a “legitimate state interest” and the condition that the reviewing agency seeks to impose. In Koontz, it applies this limitation not just to the restrictions which the owner of the land has to accept vis-a-vis his own property, but also to any other government measure which imposed a financial burden on said owner. The lower courts had argued that the Nolan criteria do not apply to demands for money. The Supreme Court held that they do.

The finer details may escape me (see for excellent analysis Daniel Richmond and in Jeremy Kozin in the New York Law Journal) however it would seem that there is excellent comparative analysis to be made re the laws on regulatory takings and compensation measures in nature conservation.

Geert (thank you to Ludo Veuchelen for alerting me to the judgment).

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Burridge v Breckland at the Court of Appeal: of salamis and EIA

In Burridge v Breckland, the Court of Appeal (permission to appeal with the Supreme Court is under consideration) had to consider the all too familiar issue of ‘salami’ projects: developments which singularly do not meet the thresholds to require an EIA but which do when joined together. Splitting needs to be considered carefully, for it may disguise an attempt to circumvent EIA requirements. On the continent, it is referred to as ‘saucisonner’.

In the case at issue, planning permissions was granted, subject to conditions, to Greenshoots Energy Ltd for a biomass renewable energy plant, and for a combined heat and power (‘CHP’) plant on nearby land. The CHP plant would be fuelled by biogas produced by the renewable energy plant.  In an earlier (later amended) stage of the application, the two plants were effectively joined: the CHP plant was moved ‘to have the environmental advantage of moving a part of the installation farther away from the village [ ].’ An underground gas pipeline is to carry the fuel between the two sites.

Appellant requested that the permits be quashed, on the basis that no EIA, indeed not even screening was carried out vis-a-vis the amended scheme.

The ECJ has unequivocally rejected inter alia in Ecologistas en Acción (referred to by the Court of Appeal), the artificial splitting of projects to circumvent EIA requirements:

as the Court has already noted with regard to Directive 85/337, the purpose of the amended directive cannot be circumvented by the splitting of projects and the failure to take account of the cumulative effect of several projects must not mean in practice that they all escape the obligation to carry out an assessment when, taken together, they are likely to have significant effects on the environment within the meaning of Article 2(1) of the amended directive (see, as regards Directive 85/337, Case C-392/96 Commission v Ireland [1999] ECR I‑5901, paragraph 76, and Abraham and Others, paragraph 27). [Case C-142/07 Ecologistas en Acción-CODA v Ayuntamiento de Madrid, [2008] ECR I-6097, paragraph 44]

In the case at issue, the splitting may not have been artificial, but it was certainly a reality. Hence at the least a renewed screening ought to have been carried out.  A consequential further issue related to the impact of the earlier screening, which had been carried out vis-a-vis the unamended, initial application, and which had decided against the need for an EIA. Was this to have any impact on the Court of Appeal’s decision? Here, (the majority of) the CA thankfully adopted the only sensible approach: separation of powers. Even if it might be unlikely that a different screening opinion were to be taken vis-a-vis the amended application, that is for the local authority to consider: not the court.

The two decisions were quashed.

Should the Supreme Court consider the issue, I shall of course revisit in due course.

Geert.

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Is justice what you can afford to be done? ECJ turns to Aarhus Convention to apply ‘not prohibitively expensive’ in the EIA Directive.

In Edwards, the European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’) turned to the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, to interpret the provision ‘not prohibitively expensive’ in the European Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment (‘EIA’). These provide that members of the public (with sufficient interest) must have access to a review procedure before a court of law or another independent and impartial body established by law to challenge the substantive or procedural legality of decisions, acts or omissions subject to the public participation provisions of the Directive. Any such procedure must be, in the words of the Directive, ‘fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive.’

The House of Lords had affirmed a Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the appeal of Ms Pallikaropoulos and, on 18 July 2008, ordered her to pay the respondents’ (including the Environment Agency) costs of the appeal, the amount of which, in the event of disagreement between the parties, was to be fixed by the Clerk of the Parliaments. The respondents submitted two bills for recoverable costs in the amounts of GBP 55 810 and GBP 32 290. The jurisdiction of the House of Lords was transferred to the newly-established Supreme Court and the detailed assessment of the costs was carried out by two costs officers appointed by the President of the Supreme Court. In that context, Ms Pallikaropoulos relied on Directives 85/337 and 96/61 to challenge the costs order that had been made against her.

The Supreme Court asked the ECJ inter alia

– whether the question whether the cost of the litigation is or is not “prohibitively expensive” within the meaning of Article 9(4) of the Aarhus Convention as implemented by [those] directives be decided on an objective basis (by reference, for example, to the ability of an “ordinary” member of the public to meet the potential liability for costs), or should it be decided on a subjective basis (by reference to the means of the particular claimant) or upon some combination of these two bases?, and whether

– in considering whether proceedings are, or are not, “prohibitively expensive”, is it relevant that the claimant has not in fact been deterred from bringing or continuing with the proceedings?

In 2003, the EIA Directive had been amended and specific reference had been made to the Aaurhus Convention with which, the Directive said, the EIA Directive had to be ‘properly aligned’.

The ECJ held that the cost of proceedings must neither exceed the financial resources of the person concerned nor appear, in any event, to be objectively unreasonable.  As regards the analysis of the financial situation of the person concerned, the assessment which must be carried out by the national court cannot be based exclusively on the estimated financial resources of an ‘average’ applicant, since such information may have little connection with the situation of the person concerned. The national court may also take into account the situation of the parties concerned, whether the claimant has a reasonable prospect of success, the importance of what is at stake for the claimant and for the protection of the environment, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the potentially frivolous nature of the claim at its various stages. That the claimant has not been deterred, in practice, from asserting his or her claim is not in itself sufficient to establish that the proceedings are not, as far as that claimant is concerned, prohibitively expensive.

Plenty of criteria therefore for the Supreme Court to consider, altogether a (slight but important) dent in Member States’ national civil procedure rules.

Geert.

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