State won’t shut Arctic coal mines

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Despite stated concern for the climate and the need to cut carbon emissions, Norwegian politicians look unlikely to shut the country’s controversial coal mines in the Arctic. Now they claim the state-owned mines on Svalbard are of increased strategic importance given heightened tensions with Russia.

Coal mining has been carried out on Svalbard for more than 100 years, and politicians are having trouble coming up with alternatives to maintain jobs and keep Svalbard populated. PHOTO: Store Norske

Coal mining has been carried out on Svalbard for more than 100 years, but it raises serious environmental concerns. Politicians are having trouble coming up with alternatives to coal, to maintain jobs and keep Svalbard populated, and now look likely to continue supporting the coal mining operations. PHOTO: Store Norske

Newspaper Dagsavisen reported this week that the Labour Party, the Center Party and the Progress Party want Trade Minister Monica Mæland of the Conservative Party to provide the funding necessary to keep Norway’s financially troubled Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani operating. The state-owned company has sought a crisis loan of NOK 450 million and Mæland has indicated a willingness to grant it, but even without the Conservatives, the three other parties would have a majority in Parliament to push it through.

Svalbard’s coal-fired power plants release around 200,000 tons of carbon emissions every year into the especially sensitive Arctic environment. Officials at the United Nations and most major environmental organizations have been urging the Norwegian government to shut the mines down, at a time when the government is already under pressure to cut Norway’s high level of emissions caused by its oil and gas industry,

Neither research activities on Svalbard nor tourism generate enough jobs to replace those from coal mining. PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

Neither research activities on Svalbard nor tourism generate enough jobs to replace those from coal mining. PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

Both Labour and the Center Party portray themselves as environmentally conscious, yet as with the oil industry, the jobs created by the mines are taking precedence over climate concerns. Coal mining provides a third of the employment base in the small, remote community on Svalbard and neither tourism nor expanding research operations can replace the jobs that would be lost if the mines close down.

“Store Norske will continue to be an important motor for the Svalbard community, and for the business development we shall have on Svalbard,” Else-May Botten of the Labour Party stated as justification for the party’s support for a crisis loan to the company. It’s been battered of late by low coal prices that forced the layoffs of around 100 workers last fall.

Geir Pollestad of the Center Party, leader of the Parliament’s committee for business and trade issues, also supports the loan. “Svalbard will only continue to become more strategically important for Norway in the future,” Pollestad told Dagsavisen. “We don’t think coal prices should influence our presence on Svalbard.”

Øyvind Korsberg of the Progress Party, which shares government power with the Conservatives, agrees. “This is also a question of foreign policy and security issues,” Korsberg said. “It was especially important to maintain a presence on Svalbard during the the Cold War, and now we’re also seeing a Russia that’s become rather demanding.” The Russians also maintain a settlement on Svalbard, at Barentsburg, where a Ukrainian man in his 40s was injured in a mining accident earlier this week. He has taken by helicopter to hospital in Longyearbyen and the cause of the accident is under investigation, reported Svalbardposten.

Looking for alternatives to coal mining
Justice Minister Anders Anundsen of the Progress Party announced earlier this month that the government will study alternatives to coal operations on Svalbard. The Liberal Party, which has an agreement to support the government, also urges alternatives on the grounds that unprofitable and environmentally hazardous coal must be phased out eventually.

The Greens Party urges a three-year phase-out of the coal mining, and opposes granting more state financial aid to Store Norske. “Jobs can’t be an argument that hinders diversification away from fossil energy,” Rasmus Hansson, Member of Parliament for the Greens, told Dagsavisen in December when Svalbard’s local government leader was lobbying hard for state aid.

Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet) claims it’s “crazy” to lend more state money to produce climate-unfriendly coal in the Arctic. Greenpeace has called Norway’s coal mining operations an environmental shame.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund