Article 22 April 2015

Greener pastures – Finland contemplates environmental reforms

A working group of the Ministry of the Environment is aiming to make Finland’s environmental authorisation procedures more streamlined. If the proposals go forward as proposed, they could reduce the administrative burdens for businesses that have environmental regulation obligations.

In March 2015, a working group of the Finnish Ministry of the Environment gave its proposals on how to improve Finland’s environmental regulations. The initial assignment, set out a year prior, was to evaluate different ways to restructure and strengthen the permit and evaluation procedures that focus on the environment.

The primary intent was to enable more efficient proceeding of investment and business projects without compromising the objectives of environmental protection. The working group report sets forth 19 measures to improve several environmental procedures as a part of a wider modernisation process of environmental regulation.

The main proposed structural changes fall on the environmental impact assessment (EIA) related to land use planning and authorisation procedures, as well as the so-called pre-negotiated procedure. The proposals aim to eliminate overlapping permit practices and to emphasise co-operation between authorities and applicants in project planning and realisation.

Less bureaucracy through a one-stop-shop

The report proposes that the advantages and disadvantages of the combination of separate environmental permit procedures should be thoroughly investigated. In the future, permit procedures could possibly be dealt with a one-stop-shop principle.

For the time being, one project may require several parallel or consecutive permits and report procedures. This undoubtedly wastes resources of both project developers as well as the public authorities, because of, among other reasons, the sometimes significantly exceeding procedure durations. In addition, the present field of different procedures is not the easiest one to piece together. Thus, the report notes that it is important to clarify the advantages and disadvantages of different combining alternatives. However, one important feature would be that the combining would result in one appealable decision.

Another time-saving proposal is the extension of leave to appeal system to environmental matters more widely. However, the working group does not see any need to restrict the right to appeal of the supervisory authority.

Better co-ordination between separate procedures

At the moment, there is certain overlap between the different reports the project developer has to present. The working group has suggested more efficient co-ordination between an EIA and land use planning, when it comes to the same project. An EIA and land use planning could be combined in situations where the plan is being prepared for a certain project. The idea is that the planning procedure could be performed as broadly as is required in an EIA. However, when this would not be possible, the supervisory authority would still have the means to require an EIA to be performed.

The working group has proposed or seen a possibility for similar co-ordination between an EIA, Natura 2000 assessments and environmental permit procedures. In addition to savings in resources, these changes could even improve the quality of nature assessments and strengthen the possibilities to participate and get information.

More straightforward co-operation with authorities

Some of the proposals aim at simplifying the co-operation with the authorities. The working group has seen a lot of potential in pre-negotiations provisions that could be added into the Act on Environmental Impact Assessment (468/1994). With pre-negotiations, project developers and various authorities could shape a more complete idea of the procedures required already in the early stage of the process.

The working group found that developing pre-negotiations between applicants and authorities is one of the most promising means to align requirements and procedures in a project requiring several permits. This is because in that way permit procedures and their management can be made more effective altogether.

In general, the need to improve the pre-negotiation relates to the aim of prompt processing of environmental permits, but still in a socially acceptable way that keeps a high standard of environmental protection. The pre-negotiation procedure has actually been already applied in some socially significant permit procedures of which the most famous is probably the still pending case of Äänekoski bioproduct mill.

Better co-operation is perhaps needed also for one proposal of the report according to which an EIA should be more emphasised to the information needed for recognising the environmental impact of an individual project. Without good co-operation with the authorities, a more case-by-case evaluation of the required reports may reduce certainty of the developer.

One proposal suggests better authority guidance also in processes that do not require an EIA. This guidance would go further than the normal obligation to provide advice of the Administrative Procedure Act (434/2003) and, according to the proposal, advising should be electronic. According to the report, the processing of permit applications could be fastened if the applicant would have a simple way to ask for advice on the content of the application and required reports and statements. The proposal would likely make the process more certain for a project developer, since it would also cover an estimate of the timetable.

With regard to timetables, one proposal suggests that the maximum time period of the co-ordinating authority to give a statement of an EIA assessment programme should be cut down to one month. This is mainly because the assessment programmes are usually much shorter than the assessment reports, but at the moment both statement must be provided within two months.

All in all, the reforms should reduce the distance between the real-time functioning society and the traditional permission administration. E-services development plays a key role in improving the procedures. Over the next few years, the electrification of the regional environmental administration should be extended, not only to the rest of the state administration and appeal proceedings, but also to the respective municipal-level procedures. However, the resources relating to the electrification procedure are a big question mark.

Practical significance

The report contains several other proposals that may have a true impact on project developers, such as the determination if there is a need to require an environmental permit for activities that may place an unreasonable burden on the surroundings referred to in section 17(1) of the Adjoining Properties Act (26/1920). In practice, this could mean that, for example, wind energy projects would not need environmental permits in future.

If the proposals will be brought into force, they have a true potential to lower the threshold for entrepreneurs and investors to get involved with environmental procedures without endangering the level of environmental protection. Some of the proposals are enforceable in a relatively short time, but others require further reporting that should be started as soon as possible.

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