From Consultation to Consent: Community Approval as a Prerequisite to Environmentally Significant Projects
88 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2013 Last revised: 14 Oct 2013
Date Written: October 13, 2013
Since the United States enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969, nations all around the world have adopted similar statutes. What started as a unique response to the American environmental movement grew to become a nearly global standard. Although the details of the regimes vary from country to country, there are two constants: (1) the regimes force the government to consider environmental impacts before conducting or authorizing projects, and (2) they allow some degree of public participation. This article focuses on the latter of these two features.
Public participation in NEPA-style regimes generally means public consultation: information is disseminated and civil society is allowed to comment. Depending on a range of factors — some political and some legal — comments may influence the circumstances under which a project takes place or whether it occurs at all. Though the public’s influence is often limited in practice, the mere fact of public participation at the project level — as opposed to participation at the candidate level through elections or at the issue level through referenda — is exceptional. In the U.S. and many other countries, NEPA and its counterparts represent a break from the normal rule of executive decision-making by encouraging public involvement and deliberative, participatory democracy.
Despite the progress, critics have accused these regimes of falling short. In practice, public consultation under NEPA-style frameworks is severely limited in terms of who participates, how many participate, and the extent to which this participation impacts the decision-making process. This is not surprising. By its very nature, consultation implies limited influence.
In this article, I argue that policy-makers, both domestic and foreign, should replace consultation with consent as the public-participation requirement in certain cases. Although the concerns leading to the inclusion of public consultation in NEPA and its foreign counterparts were many, one of the more important ideas was that those persons affected by environmentally significant projects should have a say in the matter. Unfortunately, the consultation approach has proven increasingly ineffective. If the goal is to match influence with stake, consultation is the wrong mechanism.
Requiring consent, even in a limited number of cases, may seem like an extreme remedy. Not so. It is an attractive way to respond to a situation inherent in many major public works (especially infrastructure and energy projects) and in large-scale private endeavors on public land (especially extractive projects). While the benefits of these projects are often spread around an entire nation or large region, the environmental costs are frequently concentrated within a small, local community (the site community). Requiring the consent of the local site community insures that its interest is adequately accounted for in the decision-making process.
Keywords: NEPA, EIA, environmental impact assessment, environmental decision-making, environmental law, administrative law, international environmental law, public participation, FPIC, consultation, consent
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