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What preliminary environmental authorisations are required before commencing oil and gas-related activities?
The main authorisation required is an environmental permit. In the Flemish region, the rules and procedures for obtaining an environmental permit are set out in the Flemish Regional Act of June 28 1985 on environmental permits. From February 2017, the urban planning and environmental permit will be combined into a single environmental permit under the Flemish Regional Act of April 25 2014.
The Walloon Regional Act of March 11 1999 on environmental permits is the relevant legislation in the region. For certain projects that require environmental and urban planning permits, a single permit can be obtained.
The Brussels-Capital Regional Act of June 5 1997 on environmental permits is in force in that region. The environmental and urban planning permits are not integrated, but applications can be simultaneously examined for certain mixed projects.
Environmental protection rules regarding offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities are set out in Article 25 of the Act of January 20 1999 on the protection of the marine environment and the organisation of marine spatial planning in sea areas under Belgian jurisdiction (the Marine Protection Act). Article 25 of the act requires authorisation and a licence for industrial oil and gas activities. The required authorisation and licence is granted on the basis of Royal Decree of September 7 2003 establishing the procedure for licensing and the authorisation of certain activities in sea areas under Belgian jurisdiction.
What environmental protection requirements apply to the operation of oil and gas facilities?
The most significant environmental protection requirements are the general, sectorial and project-specific environmental conditions contained in an environmental permit.
Generally applicable rules concern:
- the prevention of soil and water contamination;
- the prevention of air, noise and light pollution; and
- the disposal and removal of chemicals, energy use and the emission of greenhouse gasses.
Activities in the oil and gas sector can also be subject to additional sector-specific environmental requirements, such as specific water and atmospheric emission limits for refineries.
Offshore oil and gas activities are also subject to specific conditions of the Act of June 13 1969 on the exploration and exploitation of non-living resources in territorial waters and on the continental shelf and the Marine Protection Act.
What are the consequences of failure to adhere to the relevant environmental regulations and to what extent can operators be held liable for environmental damage?
Non-compliance with the relevant environmental provisions can lead to:
- suspension or withdrawal of the environmental permit in question;
- closure of the installation; or
- administrative penalties.
Non-compliance with environmental regulations may also be an environmental offence, subject to criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines.
In principle, the operator is liable for the costs associated with the prevention and remediation of environmental damage. However, an operator is not generally required to bear the costs where it can prove that environmental damage or imminent threat of such damage is due to:
- an act of a third party, despite appropriate security measures being taken; or
- the result of compliance with an order or instruction of a public authority.
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