From the US to Brazil, countries use the pandemic as an excuse to ease environmental regulations

The coronavirus pandemic is being used as an excuse to temporarily relax or permanently dilute impact assessments (IA) regulations, standards and policies, IA professionals agreed in a recent survey. The concerns are now being confirmed by decisions in that line in the US, India, Brazil, and Canada.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Credit Wikipedia Commons

The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) carried out a survey among professionals in the field in order to assess the effects of COVID-19 on environmental regulation. Half of those surveyed agreed that some states would use the pandemic to rule out regulations already in place.

“What we had feared is coming to pass,” said in a statement IAIA Executive Director, David Bancroft. “This is not the time to hastily make decisions to move forward with potentially unwise and unsustainable infrastructure projects that will burden the world’s people for generations to come.”

While the results are still being processed, the survey showed that movement restrictions have dramatically increased the number of impacts assessment professionals working from home, reducing opportunities for public consultations and fieldwork.

This will likely affect the detail and comprehensiveness of impact assessments, given the key roles consultations and fieldwork play in defining and validating assessment results, IA professionals agreed in the survey. This will be the case even if stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, as remote work will likely continue for some time, they said.

“Impact assessment helps advocate for meaningful engagement to inform communities, helping empower them and get them involved in the decision-making process, thus building local support. This process includes the trade-offs and competing factors in decision making,” said Bancroft.

Bleak perspectives around the world

The concerns highlighted by the survey are gradually being confirmed in several countries around the world, which are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to boost extractive activities or polluting projects by temporarily relaxing regulations, standards and policies.

In Brazil, the head of the country’s National Mining Agency (ANM) is planning to take a “regulatory guillotine” to the mining sector. Tomas Albuquerque, ANM head, said at a mining conference in May that he is working on a new framework to eliminate “obstacles” currently facing the sector.

“All this [red tape] is what we are going to suppress, the legislation we will repeal, we will be able to do this with the instrument that we call the regulatory guillotine. Simply cut, unclog and move forward,” said Albuquerque at a conference promoted by FFA Legal, a private consultancy that works with mining companies.

The calls for deregulation pose a particular risk to indigenous lands and come amid a legislative attempt by Bolsonaro to make good on one of his key campaign promises to open up indigenous lands for mining, hydroelectric dams, and agribusiness. The bill is currently stalled in parliament.

In Canada, the Ontario government has suspended key environmental protection oversight rules, claiming they could hinder its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The change essentially allows the government to push forward projects or laws that could impact the environment, without consulting or notifying the public.

Meanwhile, in the US, President Trump signed an executive order that would waive requirements under a suite of environmental laws, a move the Administration says will boost the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. The order expedites the permitting of construction projects and energy projects.

“From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays,” Trump wrote in the order. “The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”

The order would slash the requirements in a number of landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires rigorous environmental review before building new infrastructures like highways or pipelines.

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