Strategic Comms, Pt 26: Environmental Assessments: Not Just an Academic Exercise

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(This is the 26th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Large real estate development projects typically need to undergo some type of environmental assessment.  And, if federal funding and/or permitting are involved, a project may require both federal and state environmental assessments.  This usually entails a review under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and a review under the laws and regulations of the relevant state.

However, regardless of the type of environmental assessment required, all of these assessments have one thing in common.  That is, all environmental assessments are political in nature.  Though these reviews are conducted by environmental experts and can be highly technical, one of the mistakes that developers make is assuming that this is strictly an academic exercise.  The reason they’re not is because environmental impact analyses are ultimately accepted, or not accepted, by public officials.  And, any time you have public officials making decisions, they are influenced by their constituents.

We have seen numerous examples of public officials citing expressions of support or opposition of their constituents during their evaluations of environmental reports.  This is actually not surprising because public comments are a good gauge of how projects are going to have real life impacts.  However, the danger is that this process can be influenced by a vocal minority or special interests.  For example, if public comments and testimony against a project are not countered by public comments and testimony for a project, then the balance has tipped in the opposition’s favor.

This is a critical lesson for developers as environmental reviews can delay projects indefinitely and significantly alter their shape.  Moreover, building public support through the environmental assessment phase can not only help ensure your project’s approval but can expedite the review process.  Therefore, the earlier you build public support for your project, the earlier your project will be operational.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for The Saint Consulting Group, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email


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