The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked both excitement and concerns within various industries, including the field of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs). To gauge the sentiments surrounding AI in the context of Phase I ESAs, we asked our network of Environmental Professionals in our Annual Benchmark Survey about their current feelings concerning AI, revealing a diverse range of opinions among professionals in the industry. It felt apropos to employ ChatGPT itself in the early drafts of this article to parse down the hundreds of responses we received on the topic, so that’s exactly what we did.
Concerns and Challenges
One prevalent concern expressed by respondents is the potential for AI to compound errors if not thoroughly reviewed. The fear of relying on AI for critical tasks, such as report writing, and the subsequent elimination of the need for Environmental Professionals (EPs) is also evident. Some worry about the liability associated with AI-generated reports, questioning whether the responsibility falls on the consulting firm or the AI developer in case of errors or omissions.
Additionally, professionals are concerned that AI might drive down pricing and time allotted for Phase I ESAs, risking the quality and accuracy of conclusions and recommendations. The fear of job loss to AI and the impact on the industry’s competitive edge are common worries. Respondents emphasize the importance of the human element in assessments, stressing the need for judgment, experience, and local knowledge.
Hope and Opportunities
Despite the concerns, there is hope and optimism among respondents regarding the potential benefits of AI in the Phase I ESA industry. Many express optimism about the efficiency and cost-effectiveness that AI can bring, particularly in terms of quickly compiling data from multiple sources for expedited reviews.
Professionals also see potential in AI’s ability to streamline data analysis, database and records reviews, and document processing. The hope is that AI can enhance the overall quality of Phase I ESAs by improving access to information, increasing response times, and facilitating a more thorough review of regulatory and historical documentation.
Some respondents foresee AI being used as a tool to assist EPs rather than replace them entirely. They see the possibility of AI-generated draft reports that can be reviewed and refined by human experts, leading to faster report writing while maintaining the discerning eye of an experienced EP.
Conclusion: Help or Hindrance?
The survey results reveal a mix of concerns and hopes surrounding the integration of AI in Phase I Environmental Site Assessments. While there are fears of job displacement, commoditization, and potential errors, there is also optimism about the efficiency gains, cost savings, and enhanced capabilities that AI could bring to the industry. “My prediction is AI is going to have an outsized role in the business by the end of 2024, observed Dana Wagner CHMM, National Manager of Environmental Due Diligence Services, Terracon. “This idea of alternative delivery of information is something whose time is here and is going to get more and more important with clients requiring near real-time input on their decision-making, but there are some cautionary elements to AI. For instance, I don’t think it replaces good counsel at this point.” Striking a balance between leveraging AI for increased efficiency and preserving the essential human elements of judgment and experience will be crucial as the industry navigates the evolving landscape of technology.
ABOUT THE 2023 BENCHMARK SURVEY
LightBox EDR is dedicated to tracking and understanding trends in the property due diligence market and responding to our client’s requests for current industry benchmarks. In 2Q’23, LightBox EDR invited a sample of environmental consultants and engineers across the United States to complete a survey with questions on market performance, Phase I ESA pricing and turnaround time, clients’ risk tolerance, the near-term outlook and top business challenges. More than 300 environmental professionals responded to the survey over three weeks, representing almost every US state and a wide cross-section of firm sizes and types.
You can view a complete report of LightBox’s 2023 Benchmark Survey Results here.