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'It's the best we could hope for'

Union leder Ronald Jacobsen is glad the Government has made a decision. FOTO: Eirik Palm

'It's the best we could hope for'

The union leader at Store Norske is relieved a clarification came before Christmas. At the same time, Monica Mæland rejects accusations she's been dawdling.

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31.12.2015 kl 13:31

"It was the best we could hope for," said Ronald Jacobsen, the union stewart at Store Norske. "Not least, it is fantastic to get a clarification, for it has been a terrible time recently to live in the unknown."

"To get a clarification is awesome because we know what we have to work towards," he added.

Doesn't agree

Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland, a Conservative Party member, announced the government will provide 110 million kroner in 2016 to support a suspension of mining at Lunckefjell and a doubling of shifts at Mine 7. The plan was approved in September by Store Norske's board of directors, who requested a response from the government by Nov. 23 in order to proceed smoothly, but had to wait until Dec. 17. As a result, Mæland and the government were heavily criticized for their lengthy evaluation, but she denied dawdling.

READ MORE:Government to put operations at hold

"I do not agree that it has taken a long time," she said. "We got the enquiry in September and we have made thorough assessments and had consultants who have gone through the board's recommendation. This is a very large amount of money for an operating pause and so we must consider alternatives. And we have done that thoroughly."

'Nobody can predict'

The proposal, which Parliament must still approve next spring, allocates 110 million kroner to Store Norske in 2016 and an assessment of that sum will be made when determining allocations in future years. The current estimate is the company will need 145 million kroner in 2017, but that is somewhat dependent on coal prices. Mæland declined to speculate when and if the mine that opened in 2014 at cost of 1.2 billion kroner will resume operations.

"When we take a pause in operations it is in recognition that the market is now demanding. But nobody can predict the future," she said, adding Longyearbyen needs jobs and sufficient time to restructure its economy.

"Both parts will get that now if Parliament endorses it. And I have good reason to believe that the government will have a majority.

Important to have Norwegians

Svalbardposten has previously reported the number of Norwegians in Svalbard is declining while the number of foreigners is increasing in Longyearbyen. The employees at the coal company are mostly Norwegian nationals, so a complete shutdown of mining in Svalbard would further derail the Norwegian/foreign resident ratio. Mæland acknowledged the proportion of Norwegian residents was an important part of the government's assessment. The alternatives to putting most operations on hold and downsizing to about 100 employees were null, according to the coal company.

"It is important for us to have Norwegian residents in Longyearbyen," Mæland said.

Why?

"Because Svalbard is important for us in many contexts," Mæland said. "Then we have it where the political security picture has changed, and Norwegian settlements and activity have a long history."

Mæland did reject a suggestion from the Labor Party to allocate 100 million kroner to speed up work on the new harbor, noting the government is already allocating 15 million kroner for preliminary work.

"I am obviously disagreeing with Labor's budget," she said. "But that is ascribed to the opposition often spending more money than the government can utilize."

Continuing challenges

On the holiday flight home to Sømna will be a somewhat more relieved union steward. But Store Norske is still far from its goal, Jacobsen said.

"At the same time, we have major challenges and there are many who are being dismissed," he said. "This is a large and heavy process."

The union doesn't have a full overview of the impact the proposal will have on early retirement, but Jacobsen said he believes some employees will fall outside of it.

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