Feet to the Fire: UF’s Burton Singer Explores the Unexpected Benefits of Environmental Impact Assessments

For 16 years, the Emerging Pathogens Institute's Burton Singer has tracked a little-known undercurrent of environmental regulation. Although many scientists and activists are rightfully concerned about the effects of corporate development in vulnerable areas, such development has an important benefit: required environmental impact assessments (EIAs). In the latest of a series of papers tracking EIAs, Singer and six other authors discuss the healthcare infrastructure that emerged from selected oil pipeline, mining, and hydropower projects. We are not [just] observers, says Singer, who co-authored the review paper published Oct. 24, 2016 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), culled from his and other experts' experiences with these assessments.

Indeed, his team's continued publicization of corporate responsibility and the benefits that can accrue from EIAs have helped resolve a historical weakness: lack of follow-up, especially if the affected communities aren't involved in the process or privy to the final result. Companies don't publicize themselves, explains Singer. Such reports on the social and environmental assessments have not only helped improve public opinion of corporations like Exxon Mobil and Newmont Mining, but also have kept them accountable. Who's responsible for holding company feet to the fire? We don't have a clear answer, he says. However, his team has stepped up to do just that, in lieu of an international, standardized review body.

Here's how it works. In order to comply with lending requirements set forth in the Equator Principles, companies request researchers to examine the needs of local communities. More than 80 financial institutions have signed on to the Principles, which emerged from a 2003 consortium of banks led by Citigroup. The researchers must negotiate with farmers to determine optimum routing of a pipeline or mining property boundaries (and which farmers the corporations will need to compensate for lost revenue). Despite their name, EIAs are now incorporating health and social concerns as well, buoyed by new guidelines from the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association and the International Council of Mining and Metals. For example, consultants advise on program development to address any health risks that would be increased by the project. Thus, environmental consulting has become more interdisciplinary and academic, but shows great potential for growth, says Singer.

However, the role of government should not be understated, cautions Singer. These companies are not in the business of improving living standards, but doing so is good PR for them. Governments have to take this into their own hands. In his paper on the Chad–Cameroon pipeline project cited in the PNAS review, Singer discussed the difference in the project's execution in both nations. The corrupt Chad government could have used oil revenue to support schools and other public infrastructure, but they didn't, he says; the effects of the pipeline's impact assessments were better in Cameroon.

Singer adds that guidance for a standard, unbiased impact assessment process might come from an unexpected source: the June 2015 papal encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si'. Considering the saliency of the Roman Catholic Church in many low- to middle-income nations where oil and mining projects happen, the Pope's call to address anthropocentric climate change and reject human dominion theology may be a useful framework to weigh the benefits and risks of development. If this framework was properly implemented, it could support a consistent, international progress for comprehensive environmental, social, and health impact assessments (ESHIAs), says the paper.

Singer has worked with a consistent group of researchers throughout this project. Many of them connected with Singer when he taught at Princeton. He says his former postdocs and PhD students have grown into directors of research institutes, professors at Ivy League schools, and other prestigious positions. As for Singer, he also serves as adjunct professor with UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute and as a consultant with NewFields Inc., an Atlanta-based environmental consulting firm.

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