The secrets of winning environmental approval

CANADA: If the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) is to achieve its vision of the nation producing 20% of its electricity from wind by 2025, those who focus on the environmental permitting and approvals processes must think in new ways to ensure this vital step in project development is completed efficiently and effectively.

Every environmental assessment aims to minimise environmental effects
Every environmental assessment aims to minimise environmental effects

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In Canada, federal jurisdiction over energy is primarily related to trans-border movements of energy, between provinces and from Canada to other countries.

Provincial governments are responsible for generation, transmission and distribution of electricity within their own borders.

In practice, this means that, depending on where a wind project is proposed, the specific rules for an environmental assessment (EA) may differ.

Some provinces and territories, such as British Columbia, subject wind projects to the same legislated EA process as other resource development projects.

Others have implemented EA-like environmental review processes, such as the Renewable Energy Approval process in Ontario.

There are also instances where a federal EA, under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, may be needed.

Nonetheless, the fundamentals of any environmental assessment are the same. It is a process to identify, predict, evaluate and mitigate the biophysical, social and other effects of development proposals before major decisions are made.

The goal is to minimise the project’s environmental footprint while optimising benefits from the resource.

Critical to achieving a successful EA is recognising that it is a decision-making process that can be used to build a better project and gain support in the local community.

The key elements can be broken down into five points.

The importance of people

Siting a wind project and following legislation for technical studies can seem like the easy part of completing an EA.

Far more complex is predicting and managing the reaction of the local community. As such, it is critical to understand the community’s goals, values and perspectives with respect to wind energy.

Implementing a successful stakeholder engagement programme is more than just following regulations — gaining local support takes time, effort and a willingness to accept the role of responsible corporate citizen and new neighbour in the community. 

On some recent projects, we at Stantec Consulting have worked with our clients to establish a two-pronged approach to building relations with the local community.

Much goodwill can be gained when the project developer has a visible presence, such as an occupied storefront or office, and participates in local events.

Effort invested into workshops, community meetings and regular communication updates improves information exchange and helps to address community concerns.

Better still, these communication efforts can help avoid the establishment or entrenchment of negative views of the project among stakeholders.

Learning from the past

Reviewing previous approaches and stories of success or failure will undoubtedly improve the chances of a better outcome — reducing the environmental impact and contributing to the successful completion of the project.

Learn from those who came before, do what worked, avoid what did not.

Reviewing the results of avian monitoring programmes for any nearby operational wind farms, for example, would show if there are particular habitat types, locations or other environmental features that affect bird mortality. This can guide appropriate siting of turbines in the new project.

Awareness of the local environment

Understanding the local environment means going beyond published details about local flora and fauna, or completing mandatory technical field studies.

It means engaging with members of the community to tap into local knowledge of how and why people value various components of their environment.

Especially important are longtime residents and traditional land users, such as First Nations, who can offer a picture of how the area has changed over time.

Workshops, questionnaires and direct conversations not only communicate information about the project but also actively solicit vital feedback.

During a workshop in the early stages of one of our projects, for example, a landowner indicated the site of an old landfill, which had not been appropriately recorded in government databases and would have caused a redesign of the project and costly delays. Finding it early, we could design the project around it.

Responding to issues

An earnest effort to address concerns expressed by the local community, regulators and others will always pay dividends.

Aside from shortening the list of items that could delay or prevent approval of a project, it also promotes a positive corporate image.

On one project, local citizens were concerned about the visibility of a proposed high-voltage electrical transmission line near their homes, as well as the tree-cutting involved.

The project developer agreed to bury that portion of the line, thereby cementing a good, trustworthy relationship with that community.

Future issues raised by residents were few and easily addressed.

Making commitments

Where aspects of a project are not fully accepted by regulators or locals, a commitment to future activities can make the difference between a successful EA and a stalled project.

Conditions of approval are common in all jurisdictions but when imposed by the regulator can create uncertainty for the developer.

One possible condition of approval is the "operational control" of wind turbines during bird and bat migratory periods when there may be a high risk of blade strike.

To reduce the risk of such a proviso, the developer can make further commitments at the EA stage, introducing a mitigation, management and monitoring programme that is clear in intent and breadth.

There is growing recognition of the importance of CanWEA’s vision, and completing environmental assessments in a manner that results in better projects that enjoy local support can help make that vision a reality.  

Rob Nadolny is senior associate of assessment, permitting and compliance at Stantec Consulting

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