Environmental permitting remains a key instrument for controlling and, over time, reducing industrial and business impact, facilitating compliance and promoting the development of alternative technologies as part of an overall sustainability governance agenda. In order to mitigate operational risks associated with these permitting regimes, operators should be aware of the procedures required for obtaining, maintaining and reporting under the environmental permitting legislation.
In addition to permitting, there is also a myriad of wider environmental and safety obligations with which businesses must comply. To meet these various permitting requirements and compliance regimes, material expenditure may be required – in some cases, the level of financial burden may force the cessation of operations. Sustainable businesses need to know and monitor these requirements and plan accordingly.
Numerous commercial and industrial activities require an environmental permit under the UK's Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR). The EPR provides a central framework for permitting activities which impact land, water and air as well as waste management. In short, an EPR environmental permit is generally required for a regulated facility or activities which discharge (or risk releasing) substances into the environment.
There are a number of additional EHS regimes, which control the manufacture, transportation, use and storage of hazardous or radioactive substances, the extractive industries, sewerage discharges, specific greenhouse gas emissions and other dangerous activities. The energy, utilities, healthcare, petrochemical, transport and other regulated sectors also have their own permitting and licensing regimes.
Multiple UK regulations in this area create statutory liabilities for environmental damage and safety incidents. Most carry criminal penalties, with directors at risk of concurrent liability.
Given the challenge of tracing liability for environmental harm, many UK regulations cast a broad net with regard to potential liability groups. In relation to contaminated land, for example, the authorities will try to identify those who 'caused' or 'knowingly permitted' a breach, but ultimately liability might fall on current or future occupiers of a property. So, although the UK adheres to the "polluter pays" principle, the reality can be more complex.
Sustainable businesses will want to consider their obligations beyond mere legal compliance. The UK has long relied on the EU for much of its environmental control frameworks. Post-Brexit, although the status quo may be maintained in the short term, divergence is expected longer term. For example, the UK has yet to confirm it will maintain the Best Available Techniques (BAT) process.
Given the often cross-border nature of environmental damage, territorial divergence on standards and controls will make environmental management increasingly difficult. When faced with these challenges in the past, businesses have often taken a 'race to the top' approach. Businesses are advised to consider setting their operations at the highest current standards, even if short term gain can be found in relocating to regions with lower environmental controls.