Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thinking BIG: Analyzing Cumulative Impacts with the Environmental Law Institute

Surfrider regularly challenges and litigates against harmful one-off projects through our local, grassroots approach. Oftentimes, we are the first community members to identify the specific problems that are plaguing our oceans. In addition to attacking issues on a project by project basis, we also recognize the need to take a step back and assess the larger scale state of affairs for how we can prevent these types of problems from occurring again. How can we make a better system or framework for protection of our oceans, waves and beaches?

To tackle these questions, the Environmental Law Institute comprised a Working Group of 20 top-notch coastal and ocean law practitioners, policy-makers and academics to get in a room together and hash out the issue of how to address cumulative impacts. This Working Group, which included Surfrider Foundation’s Pete Stauffer and Angela Howe, focused on assessment and minimization of the cumulative harmful effects on our ocean and pursuit to maintain the health, resilience and productivity of an ecosystem.

First and foremost, the Working Group decided to define the term “cumulative impacts.” How do they relate to ecosystem-based management (“EBM”)? To marine spatial planning (“MSP”)? As ELI points out, cumulative impacts can be defined from a scientific perspective as the summed impacts of all activities affecting the ecosystem, both human and natural. This is overlain by the existing legal framework, which focuses on the point at which those impacts become significant. In fact, “significance” is the trigger at which an impact becomes legally actionable under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). The more difficult questions remain: Who should bear the burden of prior impacts? When and how should we assess the state of cumulative impacts? How do you effectively and economically evaluate the success of cumulative impact mitigation and the effectiveness of planning processes to avoid harmful cumulative impacts? How to address the lack of standardization among mitigation measures?

Specifically, ELI’s work thus far has outlined legal and policy mechanisms that support cumulative impacts analysis through 1) proposing a framework for assessing and addressing cumulative impacts, 2) assessing existing laws of West Coast states in light of their ability to support an adaptive cumulative impacts framework, and 3) outlining potential remedies to address gaps in the current system. The Working Group’s efforts are geared at improving the current management system and improving overall consideration of cumulative impacts. There also is a recognized need for funding and political support of these improvements.

For next steps, there will be research geared at addressing the above-mentioned issues and concerns. The project will include outreach to people who may use this information, including research reports and materials that will target practitioners, policy-makers and researchers. Another target is the public, through increasing public awareness and involvement with healthy ocean endeavors such as this one, and through using public knowledge and feedback to further develop and inform our decisions regarding ocean uses, including conservation. ELI has held two meetings with the Cumulative Impacts Working Group, and the next and final meeting is in June to tie it all up!

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