Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Processes and International System Development - Australian Perspective


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Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Processes and International System Development - Australian Perspective

  1. 1. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Processes and International System Development - Australian Perspective Introduction Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) evaluates the environmental impact of policies, plans and programs (or strategic proposals/decisions). The objective of SEA is to mainstream the environmental consideration at the earlier phase of decision making and improved governance through reducing administrative burden via avoiding project level EIA and duplication along the ministries (Fischer 2007; Therivel 2010; Fundingsland Tetlow and Hanusch 2012). Australia has more than 30 years of experience of evaluating PPPs (policies, plans and programs) under different legislative mechanisms. In May 1992 the Australian Commonwealth, all States (6) and Territories (2) and Australian Local Government Association, signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE). The signatories agreed that ‘environmental issues associated with a proposed project, program or policy will be taken into consideration in the decision making process’. Clearly, the IGAE enveloped the principle of SEA (Kelly et al. 2012). Following this after an extensive review of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposal) Act 1974, in 1999 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act came into force. This Act formally introduced SEA in Australian legislative context. Before this SEA was informally applied to proposals nationally and regionally, but no mandatory or formal bindings (Marsden 2013b). Section 146 of EPBC Act introduced the discretionary provision of SEA in all sectors excepts for fishery which has been made mandatory by Section 147 (Ashe and Marsden 2011). Extent to which SEA has become a Central Component of Decision Making The voluntary nature of Section 146 resulted poor take-up of SEA by the proponents through producing only two cases of discretionary SEA until 2006. The Government amended the EPBC Act in 2006 to provide incentive to the proponents of SEA through keeping the provision that those PPPs which is already endorsed under Section 146 can be approved by the minister without making further assessment such as EIA (Ashe and Marsden 2011). That amendment triggered 4 completed SEA and 12 on-going SEA till date among which majority
  2. 2. is for spatial development planning (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2013b; Stoeglehner et al. 2010). In contrast, 120 SEAs in fisheries sector have been performed due to its legal bindings and provision of incentives in return in the form of export license (Marsden 2013a). In addition to that SEA is also performing well in other niche areas such as National Environment Protection Measures and Australia’s foreign aid program (Ashe and Marsden 2011). Four of Australia's states now have legislative requirements for SEA that relate to environmental planning and protection (New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania), and the two self governing territories also have some SEA provision (Marsden and Ashe 2006). The objectives of these acts and policies are to promote Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) by protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places — defined in the EPBC Act as ‘matters of national environmental significance’ (MNES). Procedural guidelines to undertake SEA (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2013a) has been recently published by the Australian Government. Best practice guidelines and standards is only available for fisheries sector (Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries-2001) reflecting the focus of SEA in Australia, which is solely on ocean and marine environment (Marsden 2013a). Though SEA-type assessment in Australia has a long story much of this has been ad hoc in nature and has used the language ‘SEA’ only in some cases and in some instances may be characterized as ‘para SEA’(Dalal-Clayton and Sadler 2005 cited in Ashe and Marsden 2011). The practice of SEA is uneven across the administrative scale. SEA is mainly focused on national (federal) and regional (state) level with little evidence in the local (territory) level (Marsden and Ashe 2006). SEA is being used as the routine or ‘tick-box’ procedure by the Australian government to fast-track the development process (avoiding EIA as much as possible) and aiding quick- decision making which can be evident from the nature of amendment of the EPBC act in 2006. Australian policy-makers have yet to determine whether PPPs should seek to advance sustainable development or merely take the concept into account (Kelly et al. 2012). SEA is only focused and successful in the fisheries sector, reflecting the distinctive authoritative boundary between the national and state government. While the marine environment’s responsibility vested upon the federal, local and regional level development decision is under
  3. 3. the scrutiny of state and territory government. Which reflects why fisheries sector are kept mandatory and the rest of the sectors are still voluntary (Coffey et al. 2011; Marsden 2013b). On the other hand the high number of successful SEA cases in fisheries sector provides the example that SEA can be extremely successful, whether it is mandatory or voluntary; and this success depends on the willingness of the stakeholders and inputs within the process (Ashe and Marsden 2011). Furthermore, environmental consideration often outweighed among other social and economic development imperatives placed upon the decision table (Stoeglehner et al. 2010). Gap between SEA Theory and Practice The objective of the EU SEA directive was to adopt environmental consideration early in the decision making system (Therivel 2010). Whereas the objective of the SEA is not mentioned explicitly under the EPBC act (Marsden 2013b). The purpose of the SEA is portrayed in the theory as to improve the strategic decision through identifying the best options from the alternatives which have the least environmental impact and ensuring the legitimacy of the policy making via increased stakeholder participation (Fischer 2007; Therivel 2010; Fundingsland Tetlow and Hanusch 2012). In the case of Australia, SEA is being currently used as a routine approach which has been discussed earlier. Not considering the alternatives and initiating SEAs after fixing the location of the project has reported in Australia (Ashe and Marsden 2011). The purpose of ‘tiering’ in the theory of SEA and EU directive is to assess and filter the negative impact earlier and conduct EIA (if necessary) on those matters which has not been assessed under SEA (Therivel 2010). The purpose of ‘tiering’ is different in the context Australia. Australian government assesses policies, programs and plans to fast-track the individual project level decision through not conducting EIA at all for those projects which has been already evaluated at a higher tier (Marsden 2013b). In addition, SEA is focused mainly on the plans and couple of policies. Programs level SEA is still scarce (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2013b). Furthermore SEA is still ‘reactive’ in fisheries sector and ‘proactive’ for spatial development decision. Moreover the same proponent who is responsible in developing the PPPs is the responsible authority for conducting the SEA and submitting to the Department of Environment for appraisal (Ashe and Marsden 2011).
  4. 4. Conclusion Simon Marsden (the leading researcher about Strategic Environmental Assessment’s evolution and practice in Australia) has explored the weakness and strength of SEA practice is Australia through a number of studies (Marsden 2002; Marsden and Ashe 2006; Ashe and Marsden 2011; Marsden 2013a; 2013b) . Which can be summarized as the following - SEA practice in Australia is still ad hoc and voluntary in nature. It is underutilized despite the presence of specific legislation for SEA. The use of the SEA in state and territory level is very uneven. SEA system is highly dependent on ministerial discretion. It has limitations on the scope of environmental matters that may be considered in SEA. Additionally, SEA practice throughout Australia is scattered, inconsistent and often absent. It lacks institutional, enforcement and political support. Weak guidelines through the EPBC act echoes the still undefined concept of SEA in Australia. In contrast the successful implementation in the fisheries sector through providing appropriate incentives to the proponents and through legal bindings reflects the fact that, success of SEA depends on the willingness and input of the relevant stakeholders. To overcome the present situation the measures suggested by the researchers and practitioners are - SEA in Australia will only be enhanced if the legislated purpose is more explicitly focused on environmental protection, if it is applied earlier to a reasonable range of alternative sites, and if the Australian Government continues to play an active role in relation to MNES (matters of national environmental significance). References Ashe, J. and Marsden, S. (2011). SEA in Australia. In B. Sadler et al., eds. Handbook of Strategic Environmental Assessment. Oxfordshire, UK: Earthscan, pp. 21–35. Coffey, B., Fitzsimons, J.A. and Gormly, R. (2011). Strategic Public Land Use Assessment and Planning in Victoria, Australia: Four Decades of Trailblazing but Where to from here? Land Use Policy, 28(1), pp.306–313. Dalal-Clayton, D.B. and Sadler, B. (2005). Strategic Environmental Assessment: A Sourcebook and Reference Guide to International Experience. 1st ed. London, UK: Earthscan. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. (2013a). A Guide to Undertaking Strategic Assessments. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. (2013b). Strategic Assessment Prospectus. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia. Fischer, T.B. (2007). The Theory and Practice of Strategic Environmental Assessment: Towards a More Systematic Approach. 1st ed. London, UK & Sterling, USA: Earthscan.
  5. 5. Fundingsland Tetlow, M. and Hanusch, M. (2012). Strategic Environmental Assessment: The State of the Art. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 30(1), pp.15–24. Kelly, A.H., Jackson, T. and Williams, P. (2012). Strategic environmental Assessment: Lessons for New South Wales, Australia, from Scottish practice. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 30(2), pp.75–84. Marsden, S. (2013a). Protecting Heritage on Australia’s Coasts: A Role for Strategic Environmental Assessment? Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 15(03), p.1350014. Marsden, S. (2002). Strategic Environmental Assessment and Fisheries Management in Australia: How Effective is the Commonwealth Legal Framework. In S. Dovers & S. Marsden, eds. Strategic Environmental Assessment in Australasia. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, pp. 47–70. Marsden, S. (2013b). Strategic Environmental Assessment in Australian Land-Use Planning. Environmental and Planning Law Journal, 30(5), pp.422–433. Marsden, S. and Ashe, J. (2006). Strategic Environmental Assessment Legislation in Australian States and Territories. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 13(4), pp.205–215. Stoeglehner, G., Morrison-Saunders, A. and Early, G. (2010). Comparing Legislative Mechanisms for SEA Screening and Decision-Making: Austrian and Australian Experiences. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 12(04), pp.399–423. Therivel, R. (2010). Strategic Environmental Assessment in Action. 2nd ed. London, UK & Washington, USA: Earthscan.