Amendments to the Finnish Mining Act and the new Nature Conservation Act entered into force on 1 June 2023

Amendments to the Finnish Mining Act entered into force on 1 June 2023, simultaneously with the new Nature Conservation Act. We have discussed the amendments to the Mining Act and the new Nature Conservation Act in our previous blog posts in further detail.

The amendments to the Mining Act are based on the Programme of Prime Minister Marin’s Government (2019–2023) and its objective of improving the environmental protection of mines. The goal of the amendments is to increase the acceptability of mining. As a response to the changed security situation in Europe, the Commerce Committee requested in its report that the amendments to the Mining Act should include a possibility for the Ministry of the Economic Affairs and Employment to evaluate and dismiss permits if there are any national security concerns related to the permits. The suggested additions were approved by Parliament.

The Government Programme of Prime Minister Orpo was published on 16 July 2023. The Government Programme has only few direct mentions of mining and/or exploration activities, but notes that a new minerals strategy for Finland shall be drafted. In addition, the Government Programme puts emphasis on streamlining the permitting and appeals process. It is to be hoped that new Government will recognise the importance of the Finnish mining industry in the energy transition – not only for Finland but for the EU as a whole in accordance with the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials and amending Regulations (EU) 168/2013, (EU) 2018/858, 2018/1724 and (EU) 2019/1020, published on 16 March 2023.

Main amendments to the Mining Act

As regards exploration works, the reservation time (the time that an area can be reserved for the preparation of the exploration permit), is reduced from two years to one year. In order to improve public acceptability and knowledge as regards exploration works, the holder of the exploration permit is required to hold annual townhall meetings and inform the public on exploration works that have been conducted as well as on the plans going forward. Additionally, opportunities for public participation are increased by adding a requirement to obtain the approval of the authorities or bodies responsible for the management of the area or the landowners that own at least half of the exploration area when applying for an extension for an exploration permit that has been valid for at least 10 years. Should such approvals not be granted, the operator can apply for the Government to support the extension of the exploration permit. The Government may support the application if the project is required by substantial public interest. Exploration permitting is also improved by allowing the first exploration permit to be granted with immediate enforcement.

The amendments are expected to further improve coordination between mining permits and environmental permits and the consideration of the environmental impacts of a planned mine at the earliest possible stage.  The municipalities’ role in approving mining activities is enhanced by requiring that ‘mining operations be based on a detailed land use plan, in accordance with the Land Use and Building Act, or a legally binding general master plan in which the location of the mining area and the auxiliary area to the mine and their relation to other use of the areas has been assessed’. In Finland, the municipality has a monopoly on detailed land use plans and general master plans. In practice this amendment means that should the municipality refuse to plan the area, mining operations cannot be commenced. The requirements as regards the completeness of the mining permit application when filed are amended so that the applicant may supplement the application, without losing priority, with an environmental impact assessment and a Natura 2000 assessment should they be needed.

The amendments also include improvements to distinguish the financial guarantees required under the Environmental Protection Act (527/2014) for the extractive waste areas from the collateral for termination of mining activities required under the Mining Act. In February 2023, the Ministry of the Environment commenced preparations for additional amendments to the Environmental Protection Act in order to improve the transposition of the Directive 2006/21/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2006 on the management of waste from extractive industries and amending Directive 2004/35/EC and the rules on financial guarantees required for the extractive waste areas. A government proposal is expected in 2025.

The new Nature Conservation Act and exploration

The new Nature Conservation Act introduces new requirements for operators of exploration works in particular but also for existing mining operations. A material new amendment is the automatic protection of natural habitats related to serpentine rock formations. These habitats are automatically protected by law as of 1 June 2023 and may not be disturbed without an exemption permit. The new Nature Conservation Act also prohibits exploration works in certain nature conservation areas (the amendments to the Mining Act also require that nature conservation areas and other areas in which exploration cannot be conducted are already excluded in the exploration permit application).

The new Nature Conservation Act requires authorities to take endangered species into account in permit consideration and land use planning. This means that the protection of endangered species should also be taken into account for example in permit consideration under the Mining Act in a broader sense than previously. The new Nature Conservation Act also includes provisions on voluntary compensation of ecological values which were not included in the repealed Nature Conservation Act. The regulation of the voluntary compensation scheme gives corporations the possibility to have an authority approval for compensation measures conducted on a voluntary basis.