Talking environmental approval or rejection with Chile's SEA

Bnamericas Published: Saturday, February 04, 2023
Talking environmental approval or rejection with Chile's SEA

The mining sector has looked on with concern at the rejection of multimillion-dollar projects by Chile's environmental review agency SEA, such as the expansion at Los Bronces copper mine and the project to extend the life of Anglo American's El Soldado copper operation.

Obtaining environmental permits has become one of the biggest challenges for miners and, to make matters even more challenging, the rollout of a climate change framework law is expected to raise the environmental bar.

BNamericas speaks with SEA executive director Valentina Durán about these issues and more.

BNamericas: Why were Anglo American's Los Bronces and Los Bronces Integrado (LBI) projects rejected?

Durán: Los Bronces was approved and has had a favorable environmental qualification resolution since 2007, but the Las Varas neighborhood council filed a claim against a resolution adopted by the executive directorate of the SEA in December 2021 due to the rejection of an application to review the environmental qualification resolution (RCA) of the project.

The residents claimed that there was an impact from the G-21 Santiago-Farellones road and that the [mine] owner's vehicle traffic would have increased with the operation of the project. In November, the committee of ministers rejected the appeal without prejudice to the requirement that the environmental superintendency review the background and possible breaches of the conditions of the authorization.

LBI consists of the continuation of the original project operations and it was assessed unfavorably by the executive management [of SEA] in May 2022. Nine appeals were filed with the committee of ministers, one by the owner seeking to reverse the rejection of the project and eight by the observers of the citizen participation process to fortify and maintain it.

These appeals are being processed in the State's environmental administration agencies, pending the reports of the public health department, the environment department and the social services department, which are requirements for the committee to resolve the resources.

BNamericas: It has been said that LBI could impact glaciers, Santiago's main source of water, jeopardizing the public's access to potable water.

Durán: That is one of the aspects claimed by the observers. This matter is being analyzed by the secretariat of the committee of ministers and a report was requested from the general water directorate [DGA] on that.

BNamericas: Why was Anglo American Sur's El Soldado phase V operational continuity project rejected?

Durán: It was assessed unfavorably by the evaluation commission of the Valparaíso region, considering that the project should have been assessed through an environmental impact study [EIA] and not an environmental impact statement [DIA]. 

This is due to the risks to human health and the impacts on renewable natural resources, areas, protected populations and the environmental value of the territory. Fifteen appeals were filed against the RCA, one of them by the own owner opposing the grounds for rejection, which will be resolved by the executive management of the SEA.

BNamericas: How long does a project evaluation take?

Durán: There is a feeling that environmental assessment takes too many years. The truth is that the SEA complies with each of the established legal deadlines. In the case of DIAs, the term is 60 days, extendable to 90. For EIAs, it is 120 days, extendable to 180.

From 2015 to 2022, the average time for assessment of a DIA was 77 days, while for EIAs it was 163 days. The delays are due more to the project owners' requests for suspensions to respond to requests for clarification, additional information and rectifications made by the SEA.

[Environment] minister Maisa Rojas announced that she will present legal reforms to make the evaluations more technical and shorten the deadlines. The SEA makes constant efforts to ensure speedy evaluation.

BNamericas: Permit processing has been described as an "obstacle" to the development of projects. How can investors be given greater certainty?

Durán: As stated by President Gabriel Boric, environmental standards should not be considered an obstacle to development. On the contrary, they are a condition for sustainable development. Investors and citizens demand clear rules in a global context of high environmental demands.

We are aware that there are areas for improvement and, for this reason, we are developing guidelines, instructions, courses and criteria aimed at providing greater certainty to the actors.

In January, I issued an instruction to improve coordination between state agencies with environmental competence (OAECA) and reinforce assessment, with measures such as the use of advanced electronic signatures and ensuring that rulings by the agencies are consistent with their powers, in order to create greater order and certainty.

We have also opened an email address to receive comments from third parties in the framework of talks that we are holding with the private sector.

BNamericas: How has the number of mining projects evolved?

Durán: There has been an increase. In 2020, there were 89 projects submitted [to the SEA procedures]; in 2021, there were 104; and in 2022, there were 103. In historical terms, between 1992 and 2022, 2,036 mining projects were assessed, of which 1,946 were approved.

BNamericas: Of the mining projects submitted last year, how many are in the EIA and DIA stages? How much investment do they represent?

Durán: As of December 2022, there were 43 mining projects, of which 34 submitted a DIA and nine an EIA. These projects are equivalent to US$3.16bn, which represents 8.5% of the investment projects that are being assessed.

BNamericas: What will be the new requirements due to the climate change framework law?

Durán: One of our strategic pillars is to incorporate climate change into environmental assessment in accordance with current urgency and that law. In January, we issued guidelines that provide criteria and a methodology to carry out an appropriate assessment of the projects, as the environmental components demonstrate new risks and vulnerabilities.

It seeks to integrate the analysis of the effects of climate change on environmental components into the preparation of environmental impact declarations and studies. This document will be very important for the work carried out by project owners, consultants and evaluators, and will provide tools to the public so they can participate in the SEIA [ environmental impact assessment system] processes.

BNamericas: Have any projects been submitted related to green hydrogen?

Durán: We met with the Chilean hydrogen association and discussed key aspects in the development of this type of project. We understand that it is an emerging industry and that the aim is to develop this strongly in the country. 

Environmental processing of this type of initiative presents enormous challenges and we are preparing ourselves technically to assess these projects.

BNamericas: What are the main challenges for the SEA looking ahead?

Durán: We have defined three pillars for the 2022-26 period. First, to ensure that environmental impact assessment is technical and excellent. Second, to progressively implement the Escazú Agreement in the DIA. And third, to incorporate climate change variables into the EIA.

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