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Selecting valued ecosystem components for cumulative effects in federally assessed road infrastructure projects in Canada



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The concept of a ‘valued ecosystem component’ (VEC) was introduced in Canada in the early 1980s to bring focus to project-specific environmental assessment (EA), and its corollary, cumulative effects assessment (CEA). Despite the now central role of VECs in EA and that CEA practice has for years been plagued by poor practice reviews, surprisingly little research has been done in the past few decades to examine the principles, processes, and rationales applied to VEC selection in either assessment modality. Because VECs are at the heart of impact prediction, knowing more about how and why they are chosen and if they adequately represent cumulative effects (CEs) may help to reform CEA practice, and improve EA generally. Given this, the purpose of this thesis is to advance current understanding of VECs and VEC selection processes for CEs using comprehensive study EAs of major road transportation projects in Canada as a basis for the investigation. The research methodology adopts standard methods of qualitative inquiry. First, an in-depth review of literature since 1983 (when the term was introduced) was undertaken to examine VEC concept definitions and applications. Second, a document analysis of 11 comprehensive study reports (CSRs) and environmental impact statement (EISs) prepared for road construction projects was conducted. These CSRs represent the total number of road projects that triggered a comprehensive study since 1995, when CEA was introduced into the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Third, semi-structured interviews with 22 individuals directly involved in the road construction project EAs were conducted. Those interviewed include project proponents, federal responsible authorities, consultants, provincial government representatives, and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency project managers. Data were gathered regarding the types of VECs typically selected in EA and CEA, VEC selection processes and actors, their values and rationales, and tools used to aid decision-making. Emphasis was also placed on examining process effectiveness and deficiencies. Significant findings include that science plays a very limited role in VEC selection for CEA, and overall, the CE VEC selection process is largely subjective rather than evidence-based. Further, CE VEC selection processes are strongly influenced by the initial set of VECs selected for the parent project. Most of the time, VEC lists for both project and CEA are exactly the same. Sometimes, a subset of project VECs are chosen to act as CE VECs using a deductive process called ‘residual effects analysis.’ CE VEC selection is not sensitive to ‘triple bottom line’ sustainability principles, and the level of public engagement in VEC selection decreases significantly at this stage of assessment. In the context of road construction EAs, the major challenges to CE VEC selection are (1) the ‘begin-again’ approach to each new project assessment, whereby there is very little knowledge transfer or capacity building from one assessment to another; (2) the linear nature of road development, which may compound experts’ evaluation of the local and regional importance of some ecological components and the decision to include them as CE VECs; and (3) the growth-inducing potentials of roads, which may result in high environmental risks to some (non-valued) components not anticipated during project VEC selection stage. Conversely, the major opportunities to improve CE VEC selection are: increasing public involvement; application of science to CE VEC selection processes; and early consideration of CEs at the scoping phase of the project assessment. The need for some form of VEC selection guidance in EA is clear, and transcends the road construction sector itself.



valued ecosystem components, cumulative effects, environmental assessment, road construction



Master of Environment and Sustainability (M.E.S.)


School of Environment and Sustainability


Environment and Sustainability


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