Battle begins over coal on Svalbard

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As debate flies over how Norway can cut its own carbon emissions, the top political leader on Svalbard is mounting a battle to keep the Arctic archipelago’s coal mines open. Svalbard’s coal-fired power plants release around 200,000 tons of carbon emissions every year, but she nonetheless hopes to get support from environmental organizations even though most such groups hope coal will “die a natural death” over the next decade.

Næringsminister Monica Mæland besøker Svalbard. Her utenfor den nye gruva Lunckefjell. Foto: Trond Viken, Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet.

Monica Mæland, the government minister in charge of business and trade, just visited Store Norske’s mining operations in September. This photo was taken outside the Lunckefjell coal mine, where workers are now losing their jobs. PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

That’s actually the headline on an article currently appearing on the website of Oslo-based environmental organization Bellona. Undaunted, Svalbard’s Lokalstyreleder Christen Kristoffersen of the Labour Party planned to have a meeting with Bellona and its leader, Frederic Hauge, this week, to enlist their aid in maintaining coal operations in the fragile Arctic environment.

It may sound like mining madness, given the concerns about coal’s contribution to climate change, but news this week that the company running the coal mines plans to reduce operations and lay off around 100 workers has spurred Kristoffersen into action. She’s mainly concerned about preserving jobs in the small, remote community. Since the coal mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani is state-owned, she wants the state to keep it going and is mounting a major lobbying effort to do so.

“I’m afraid that those who are opposed to coal will use this (the mining cutbacks) as an opportunity to say: ‘Now we’ll just close Store Norske on Svalbard,” Kristoffersen told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “That would be a real catastrophe for the community here.” She claims that Store Norske’s operations make up fully a third of Svalbard’s employment base. Tourism, she says, and Svalbard’s research community (which ironically is best known for studying the harmful effects of climate change tied to carbon emissions, not least from coal) can’t make up for the jobs lost if the coal mining closes down.

Politicians toured one of Store Norske's three mines on Svalbard, and can now expect heavy lobbying to keep them open despite the climate issues they raise.  PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

Politicians toured one of Store Norske’s three mines on Svalbard, and can now expect heavy lobbying to keep them open despite the climate concerns they raise. PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

Kristoffersen has now read all the various parties’ political platforms and has her arguments ready. She intends to meet everyone from political and labour leaders in Oslo to the environmental activists, and push hard to keep the coal mines operating even though even the United Nations’ top climate advocates want them shut.

Her hope is to carve out an alliance with Bellona boss Hauge, based on the theory that the coal mines themselves don’t release carbon emissions and that carbon emitted from the power plants could be captured and stored. Dagsavisen noted that Hauge hasn’t publicly supported the nearly 100-year-old coal operations on Svalbard, but said on national radio recently that coal could be more environmentally friendly than Norwegian gas, provided coal-fired power plants are equipped with carbon capture and storage systems.

Norway does not have the best track record in that area, given the failure of the government to push it through at the Mongstad power plant in southern Norway. Again, Kristoffersen is undaunted and hopes to convince the current government to try again on Svalbard.

“Now we see that Canada has succeeded with a full-scale facility, we came part-way at Mongstad and we have competence with carbon storage,” Kristoffersen told Dagsavisen. “So I agree with Hauge. If we can manage to clean coal of CO2, it can be an exceptional source of energy, especially since mining the coal creates little pollution.”

Maintaining ‘critical mass’
Her strongest message to the state decision makers remains the need for the jobs that Svalbard’s coal mines still provide. She’ll appeal to Norwegian politicians’ traditional tendency to favour the country’s outlying districts over its cities, in an effort to maintain population even in Norway’s most remote areas.

“I think it’s very easy to sit far away from Longyearbyen (Svalbard’s major settlement) and say that research and tourism can replace the coal inustry,” Kristoffersen said. “But investment in tourism depends on the critical mass we have in Longyearbyen.” The town’s cafés, restaurants, shops and a pharmacy already operate “on a marginal basis,” she said, and they need a permanent residential population to support them.

More than commercial interests at stake
Kristoffersen also scoffs at critics who may claim that her plans amount to furthering state subsidy of coal. She claims the state has been been paid a half-billion in dividends from Store Norske over the past decade, until the past two years led to losses as coal prices have tumbled. She claims that if the mining company had been able to retain some of its earlier profits, it would have been better prepared to deal with the current crisis.

The chief executive of Store Norske disagreed. “The state has been a good owner for Store Norske, and given the company the opportunity to build up solid net worth,” Annette Malm Justad told Dagsavisen. The company agrees, however, that the state, which owns 99.9 percent of Store Norske’s shares, “has always viewed Store Norske’s oeprations in a broader perspective than the purely commercial.” The company also agrees that as Svalbard’s largest employer, it’s an important player “in sustaining a stable, Norwegian family community on Svalbard.”

It’s a paradox that the effort to save the state’s coal mines on Svalbard comes as calls go out for the state’s huge oil fund to sell off its investments in coal companies. Justad is also looking for ways to keep the state’s own coal company in business, but cautioned earlier this week that more cutbacks are likely.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund