There's a gathering in the meeting room on the second floor inside the surface facility at Mine 7. Nicely dressed politicians, advisers and bureaucrats from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries are sitting at two long tables together with miners in their characteristic dirty outfits and faces black with coal dust. There is, as usual, plenty of laughter and joking during lunch, but a seriousness also hangs in the air. Out in the world, coal mines are shutting down one by one.
"Svalbard is in a demanding restructuring process. We have now three years for us to assess coal prices and obtain more legs to stand on," says Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland (Conservative Party).
On Tuesday, she conducted an inspection of the mine, which by this summer will be the only Norwegian one operating in Svalbard.
"We have to have hope," says miner Loyd Nilsen. "If we lose hope we just pack up and leave, the whole crew. It's that simple."
Is he confident the government will follow up?
"Yes, actually I think that," he says.
"If we lose hope we just pack up and leave", Loyd Nilsen said. FOTO: Eirik Palm
Double shifts and therefore almost double production is scheduled to start at Mine 7 in May. The staff will increase to 41 and emergency preparedness operations which today are at Svea will be moved to the surface facility at Breinosa.
With double shifts, Store Norske has known coal reserves in Mine 7 to last ten years. An old reserve on the fringes of the deposit may extend the operation for two years, but the challenge with that area is high sulfur content. There is additional coal in Bassen, a few kilometers away on the other side of Adventdalen, but it is doubtful whether it will be extracted.
In December, the government's endorsed suspending operations at Lunckefjell in the hope prices rise. The deadline for deciding whether to resume operations is 2019. The coal-price index on Wednesday shows a March price of $43.50 a ton, $21.50 less than the so-called break-even point for Store Norske. Future prices are expected to drop below $40 a ton.
"If there aren't better prices in 2019 and beyond then it becomes difficult to start up," says Store Norske Administrative Director Wenche Ravlo.
"Now we have bought ourselves a period of three years, which is to the benefit of having a settlement in Longyearbyen and, not least, building up activity at Svea," she says.
"Because whether there is coal mining or not, I think it is important that there be activity there in the future."
'Much can change'
Mæland isn't predicting how long coal mining will last in Svalbard.
Can mining continue if coal prices don't rise after ten years?
"We have to see how things develop," Mæland tells Svalbardposten. "It's hard to predict the future. Svalbard must have electricity and that is important work. So we must make a continuous assessment of the situation. We have now taken a position regarding the next three years, so we need to get back to what's going to happen next. A lot has happened the two-and-a-half years I have been responsible and much can change."
Minister of Trade and Industry, Monica Mæland, will not predict how long coal mining will last in Svalbard. FOTO: Eirik Palm
But if there is only enough coal for ten years?
"That seems to be in dispute," Mæland says. "I heard one employee say that there is coal for 20 or 30 years, so I think it depends on several factors. But no matter what it is important to begin the effort to think about the power supply in the future. I think we have to address that, and I'm having a debate with the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and with the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy."
Will there be an answer in the "white paper?"
"It will have to come back to that," Mæland says.
Seeking new customers
Store Norske has played a central role in the formation of Norway's policy objectives for Svalbard. Mine Manager Per Nilssen said the company will continue to have an important role in the future and it is now working to find more customers in the chemical industry for the upcoming doubling of coal production at Mine 7. The German company Clariant, which has aligned its production with Mine 7 due to the quality of its coal, is indicating it will purchase more coal from here.
But there are many mining companies teetering and China also recently announced unprofitable mines will be shut down.
"We expect that some of the major manufacturers will shut down because they are unable to operate at current prices," Per Nilsen says.
That could present an opportunity that allows for mining both at Mine 7 and Lunckefjell, where 60 percent of the deposit is of the quality demanded by the chemical industry.
"We aren't envisioning that we will have major production, but we think we will engage in the production of coal of a certain quality which is of interest to specific markets," he says.
"How the market will develop is difficult to say," Ravlo says. "Because with energy coal we know that efforts are being made everywhere to look at other, cleaner sources of energy. But we know that much of the coal is produced for other purposes. It will be very interesting see what happens, both in China and elsewhere."
Might the closure of other mines be the key to Lunckefjell's future?
"It is now often the case that the market and access determines prices," she says.
"Anything can happen. But we are a niche manufacturer and that is what we will continue to be."
It was recently made clear that 14-days-on/14-days-off shifts at Svea are being eliminated. Instead, miners will work "4-3-7-7" shifts that include two free periods totaling ten days during a three-week period.
Negotiations for a shift system at Mine 7 are now underway.
"The distance between the parties is relatively short, right Ronald?" asks Per Nilssen, after he has explained the situation at Store Norske at the moment.
"We'll see," responds Ronald Jacobsen, the union steward for Store Norske's miners, reaping laughter in the room.
"Miners are also extremely adaptable", union steward Ronald Jacobsen says. FOTO: Eirik Palm
"Within a short time we need to have it in place," Jacobsen tells Svalbardposten after the meeting. "We are in a dialogue and there aren't any advanced things in question. The foundation is a given."
The signals from the industry minister are there's a broad understanding operations at Mine 7 will continue and that it's important to the local community, Jacobsen says. He says he also believes it will be a milestone when the company puts its operations at Lunckefjell and Svea on hold. And perhaps also a challenge.
"Now we are miners and we are interested in going on," he says. "That's fixated in our spines. But miners are also extremely adaptable."
As of November of 2015, seven years have passed since the last accident that resulted in a loss of work time due to injuries. Mine 7 is a showpiece mine for Store Norske and Trond Olsen takes notice of that before getting into a vehicle and driving it several kilometers inside the mountain to his job. But before entering, the delegation from the ministry wants more pictures of themselves with a real miner.
"We have to think ahead," he says. "We cannot make a go of things in Longyearbyen with a family and only seeing half a year into the future."
How is he coping with the assessment period?
"It has been difficult, both for the people who work here and those we live with," Olsen says. "They do not know what is happening."
"But now we have to set ourselves off," he jokes from the awaiting vehicle. "There won't be any production happening here."
"The mood is bloody damned good here in the mine," Olsen says before returning to work after his break.