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ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT / 28 Mar 2019

Environmental impact assessment in the construction of a railway tunnel – gaining the social license to operate

The EIA process is about communication, participation and interaction. How can a big and complicated project gain the approval from surrounding society and concerned parties?

The goal of the Finnish EIA Act (Environmental Impact Assessment) is to promote environmental impact assessments and the harmonised consideration of the assessment during design and decision-making.  Similarly, the goal is to improve access to information and participation opportunities for all parties from early stages of the project. Everybody can participate in the EIA process in Finland.

Participation refers to interaction between:

  1. the Project Developer;
  2. liaison authority;
  3. other authorities and those whose conditions or benefits may be affected by the project; and
  4. organisations and foundations whose operations may be impacted  by the project.
     


Monthly event of the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel project

There are different ways of organising the participation and interaction during the EIA process. An example of the levels of communication and interaction aimed at the public is presented in the figure below. The figure presents a layered structure of the dialogue aimed at the audience.

Stakeholder management – Social License to Operate (SLO)

One of the key goals of the interaction during the EIA process is compiling the views of different parties. The legislation, and often financiers, demand a social impact assessment to be performed for projects.

Active, high-quality interaction with stakeholders results in a ”social license to operate (SLO)” i.e. the approval of the project by the surrounding society and concerned parties. The concept of SLO is raised in distinction to the idea of the official license to operate, approved by governmental agencies or ministries after the EIA process, which in many controversial cases may fail to win the hearts of affected communities and parties and therefore generate resistance.

The social license to operate:

  1. may reduce the appeals in the permit processes;
  2. may reduce any opposition to other permits required by the project;
  3. is different from lobbying!
     

How to gain the social license to operate for a big and complicated project, such as a railway tunnel between Finland and Estonia? The core elements are communication, participation and interaction.

Communication of the project must be:

  • targeted to the right audiences;
  • fact-based;
  • well-timed.
     

It is essential to begin the stakeholder management – participation and interaction – in the very beginning of the project when different project alternatives still exist. If people can participate and voice their opinions only after the fundamental decisions have already been made, they may end up feeling left ‘outside’ and uninformed. However, the possible number of project alternatives and the right timing for starting the participation and interaction depends on the nature of the project.

It is good to provide different channels for participation and interaction, including:

  • Informative websites;
  • Open, unformal monthly events as well as  formal public events related to the EIA process;
  • Web based participation applications and/or resident surveys and an opportunity to participate also without a mobile device;
  • Thematic workshops.

How to avoid possible criticism against the SLO?

When used fairly and not as a lobbying tool, SLO can be a useful guiding principle that helps mitigate local opposition to a project. However, using SLO as a method in the EIA process has raised some criticism too. Critics have mainly focused on ambiguities surrounding the processes of “granting” and maintaining SLO. It is unclear who is in the position to “grant” this license. Despite the clear importance of local communities and parties involved in “granting” the license, there is no generally accepted or clear definition of who and what constitutes such a community or parties involved.

According to Buizer et al. (2014), to secure legitimacy of the SLO, “companies, authorities and government must comply with norms and standards that are considered authoritative and fair by local communities and parties involved”. Ruckstuhl et al. (2014) suggest that, doing so, especially with regards to indigenous and traditional communities  and groups of people, means to “not only recognise harm (economic, environmental, and social), but also to treat communities and parties involved as a partner in governance and designing process rather than an actor to be managed”.

Karoliina Jaatinen
Senior Consultant
Pöyry Finland Ltd

Karoliina Jaatinen works as a Senior Consultant at Pöyry Finland Ltd, Infra, Water and Environment Business Group, Northern Europe. Karoliina is also the project manager for EIA process of the Finest Bay Area railway tunnel project between Finland and Estonia. Read more about the project on the project page.

References

Finest Bay Area - The railway tunnel between Finland and Estonia. The EIA program. [www.ymparisto.fi/FinestBayAreaTallinnatunneliYVA] and [https://finestbayarea.online/]

Buizer, M., Humphreys, D. and De Jong, W. (2014) Climate Change and Deforestation: The Evolution of an Intersecting Policy Domain. Environmental Science & Policy, 35, 1-11. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2013.06.001]

Meestersa, M. E. and Behagel, J. H. 2017. The Social Licence to Operate: Ambiguities and the neutralization of harm in Mongolia. Resources Policy. Volume 53, September 2017, Pages 274-282. [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301420717301769]

Ruckstuhl, K., Thompson-Fawcett, M. and Rae, H.  (2014). Māori and mining: indigenous perspectives on reconceptualising and contextualising the Social Licence to Operate Impact Assess. Proj. Apprais., 32 (4) (2014), pp. 304-314