Farewell OPRA and hello system change pain

The UK's Operational Risk Appraisal OPRA permitting scheme is a world leading scheme, it's a stand out model, it does it all and does it well. So, the Environment Agency's decision to replace it with an outdated model with little consultation should be a concern.

Farewell OPRA and hello system change pain

Just three years ago I was working for an environmental regulator in Australia, responsible for reviewing its environmental permit scheme and developing a new approach that was risk-based, fair, transparent, allowed for appropriate cost recovery and everything else that best practice permitting schemes should do. As part of the process the first thing I did was look at what other jurisdictions were doing, what worked and why. In doing so there was one stand out model out there; OPRA. 

OPRA is a thorough risk based assessment, it takes into account complexity, emissions, operator performance, compliance and site specific considerations that are essential for determining environmental risk. This detailed risk assessment allows the Environment Agency to target resources at those facilities that pose the greatest risk to the environment. OPRA is a permitting scheme that does it all and does it well. Hence, I ended up developing a scheme that where possible was based on OPRA.

Now in the UK and working to represent manufacturers, I am quite surprised to hear that the Environment Agency is proposing a new scheme to replace OPRA, one that appears to revert back to the old way of permitting where every activity is grouped to a ‘baseline’ category. Grouping together permit holders like this fails to recognise that complexity doesn’t just vary by activity type, but also within it. 

Additionally, using this ‘baseline’ approach removes the ability to appropriately consider site specific considerations which may be of importance for dictating what the Environment Agency’s regulatory activities are. The financial impacts of this approach will vary between permit holders, there will be fee increases for some and decreases for others, and a lot of this will be dependent on how the Environment Agency sets thresholds within the baseline categories. 

The Environment Agency is citing cost recovery, fairness, simplicity and transparency as its drivers. It is yet to release full details of the proposed new scheme, but we know it will be introduced in two stages. When it does consult in November, this will only be on part of the proposal, with details on an additional ‘environmental performance’ element to be discussed only after the initial roll out next April.

To me this seems not only illogical, but also far from a fair and simple way to reform a permit system, especially when reforming a permit system that’s considered the world’s best.

My thoughts on the benefits of reform aside, I hope that the Environment Agency changes its mind and consults on what the whole scheme will look like prior to commencement and implementation.

Brad Deane is a senior climate & environment policy adviser at EEF

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