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Setting new policy goals for Svalbard

City mayor of Longyearbyen, Christin Kristoffersen (Ap) and minister of Svalbard, Anders Anundsen (Frp), during a meeting in Svalbard in December last year. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Setting new policy goals for Svalbard

While Store Norske is experiencing its worse crisis ever and requesting an emergency loan, Svalbard Minister Anders Anundsen says the government is drafting a new white paper for the archipelago.

"I must say I am very proud and pleased to be able to tell Parliament that the government has recently decided to come up with a new Svalbard statement, precisely because there is so much happening in Svalbard now," said Anundsen, a Progress Party member, during a Parliament meeting Tuesday.

The most recent white paper, the fourth since 1975, was drafted in 2008 and 2009. The purpose of the reports has been to define developments in the archipelago, and ensure a stable Svalbard political policy and a robust Norwegian presence.

Updates of previous reports have been released roughly every decade. But Anundsen emphasized during Tuesday's parliamentary debate it is crucial to look at everything happening in Svalbard now in context because the area's fate will be an important issue for the government in the future.


Scarcely enough people

Ola Elvestuen, a Liberal Party member, put the discussion about the coal crisis and the consequences for Longyearbyen and Svalbard on the agenda of Tuesday's meeting in an interpellation. Elvestuen's notice states coal mining in the archipelago will end at some point and he is keen to get answers about what the government will do. He deducts, among other things, Longyearbyen will become a future logistics center in the Arctic for international industries, surveillance, and search and rescue.

This is also in line with the local strategy worked out in Longyearbyen.

"Where the challenge is perhaps the greatest today is to maintain Longyearbyen's community as a viable community," he said during the meeting. "Maintaining a viable community in Svalbard require a critical mass."

He said he believes the current population of about 2,000 inhabitants of Longyearbyen is less than what is necessary to maintain a robust and modern society in Svalbard.


Assessing coal mining
It is not clear when the new Svalbard white paper will be ready, but Anundsen said the work has just started and the report will be submitted as quickly as possible.

"The question of future coal mining in Svalbard must also be affected by such a publication," he said. "It is however important to remember that any end to Norwegian coal mining in Svalbard does not mean that there is an end to coal mining in Svalbard. But those are tough questions that we must come back to in the report."

In addition to providing employment, economies of scale and sustaining a relatively large settlement, coal mining today is needed to provide electricity and heat in Longyearbyen. The coal plant has a remaining life expectancy of 25 years, but the government plans to appoint a working group to consider more environmentally friendly alternatives.


Good timing
News of the updated report was embraced by officials in Longyearbyen. While it's only been about six years since the last white paper, Mayor Christin Kristoffersen, a Labor Party member, said she believes the time for a new Svalbard statement is right.

"I am very glad," she said. "This is completely in line with what I think has been the best thing for us and the main reason is that this is important in the case of Store Norske."

Kristoffersen said she is also pleased Anundsen is promising a transitional period for the entire community and presenting many of the arguments local officials have agreed need to be included in the parliamentary debate.

At the same time, the lifespan of the coal plant will expire at some point. That may mean a new energy source for Longyearbyen and therefore the willingness to invest more in the plant may be limited to the purification of existing machinery.

Kristoffersen said she expects Svalbard will have representation on the committee studying the issue and that it would be untenable to wait out the life of the existing power station before a new source is in place.

"My interpretation is that he envisions sources other than coal," she said. "Maybe LNG? We will obviously participate in that assessment. But 25 years is too long and completely untenable."

LNG is gas chilled to liquid form and compressed 600 times.


Reversing the sums
The Svalbard white papers have received broad support in Parliament, and both the Labor and Conservative parties are emphasizing a continuing government ownership of Store Norske for the long term.

But Rasmus Hansson, a Green Party member, is adamant there isn't a viable future solution that clings to coal mining.

"Therefore, it is also very interesting that Store Norske has requested 450 million kroner in support, of which 400 million will go to maintaining coal mining and 50 million to developing new industries," he said. "The simple and obvious solution initially is reversing the amounts."

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