‘White’ out: Government’s new blueprint for Svalbard does little to alter natural transition into post-mining society

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There’s no magical “big” solution, no major new goals not already stated and – aside from 10 million kroner for infrastructure related to the Dec. 19 avalanche – no new hardcore funding commitments.

The long-awaited revision of the “Svalbard Message” – a “white paper” outlining the Norwegian’s policy goals for the archipelago – largely refers to commitments already made to keep coal mining on life support for the next few years while encouraging an expansion of both the size and diversity of private industries, plus an expansion of education and research activities.

And while the avalanche funding will provide a small portion of what Longyearbyen’s local leaders say is necessary for the city’s post-coal future, the report cites the tragedy as a reason to scale back the ambitions of infrastructure investment.

“The avalanche disaster has also shown that it is necessary to ensure that infrastructure is adapted to today’s level of activity, rather than open new activities that may trigger the need for large investments,” notes the document released Wednesday by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which has administrative authority over the archipelago.

The revised white paper, which Parliament is expected to consider for approval this fall, is also being released at a time when Norway is being forced to tap into its oil wealth fund for the first time ever to help fund its budget due to a collapse in oil prices and the kroner against most major currencies.

Besides the avalanche funding, the most significant new inclusions are having the Norwegian Polar Institute replace Kings Bay AS as operational manager of Ny-Ålesund and possible relocating some government jobs to Svalbard – although only a handful of the latter are specified as possibilities.

Immediate reactions from local leaders after a press conference in Longyearbyen by top officials by Norway’s Conservative-led government to unveil the white paper were largely consistent with those regarding various issues related to it during the months leading up to its release.

“For me this is saying ‘we should not rock the boat,'” said Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, a Labor Party member, adding he was hoping to see a firm commitment to funding infrastructure he sees as necessary for the town’s future.

“I’m glad that they’re thinking the same in some of our strategies in the development of the town,” he said. “I’m also hoping to see in the short term tools to help us replace the coal industry.”

Kjetil Figenschou, head of Longyearbyen’s Conservative Party, said that since local leaders hadn’t yet had time to read the actual paper “it’s a bit too early to criticize it.”

“A lot of people have a little too high exceptions because a paper like this will never be complete,” he said. “I like to think it’s a good paper giving industry a lot of flexibility and opportunities.”

The Norwegian government released its first white paper in 1990, stating the intension was up to update the document roughly every ten years. Parliament approved the last revision of the paper in 2009, but Justice Minister Anders Anundsen announced in early 2015 a hasty revision would be drafted a few years earlier than planned due to a collapse in coal prices that left Store Norske in financial peril and unlikely to continue as Longyearbyen’s cornerstone industry.

But the process proved far longer than local political and business leaders anticipated, resulting in numerous complaints the government was essentially taking action through it’s inaction – to the detriment of the community. Store Norske – which already scaled back its workforce from about 400 in 2012 to about 275 in 2015 – announced last fall they intended to halt nearly all coal mining operations and reduce its workforce to 100 employees.

That announcement triggered alarm locally and nationally, with some projecting Longyearbyen could lose more than 600 of its 2,200 residents when families and layoffs in related industries were factored in. In addition to the economical and societal concerns, many at the national level expressed worries about how the drastic downsizing would affect the strength of Norway’s presence in what security officials have called one of the country’s most important strategic assets.

But the newly revised white paper appears to play down many of those concerns, such as declaring the impact of the mining layoffs were not as severe as feared because many of the workers were “commuters” who worked two-week shifts at the mines and then returned to their homes for their two-week breaks. Recent statistics show that while Longyearbyen’s population has avoided a significant drop, the ratio of foreign residents is steadily increasing and the number of Norwegian school-age children has dropped sharply.

The revised paper notes the government is already supporting a financial allocation of up to 749 million kroner during the next four years to maintain Store Norske’s Svea and Lunckefjell mines in the event coal prices recover sufficiently to make operations profitable – a prospect widely deemed unlikely. The mining company, in the meantime, is employing a double shift at Mine 7, and beginning to expand tourism offerings at various former mining installments and examine the possibility of offering consulting on Arctic industrial work using Svea as a base.

Although expanding and diversifying private industry is a major theme of the white paper, there are no large-scale initiatives or funding proposals beyond those already approved during the past year. The government agreed to provide 50 million kroner of “economic development incentives” to the city government and Innovation Norway, and earlier this year amended the Norway’s Marine Resources Act to allow commercial fish processing in the archipelago, but assets its role is largely a passive one.

“The government’s role is not to designate which new companies and new private jobs may be relevant in the future,” the document states. “The government’s role primarily within the framework of Svalbard policy is to facilitate new workplace opportunities that can be created within those industries where Svalbard has natural advantages”

Furthermore, the revised policy document notes it has been known Longyearbyen would have to transition as a community ever since the first white paper was drafted, but a large-scale rebuilding isn’t an immediate priority even if that transition has sped up.

“The government emphasizes that efforts to readjust Longyearbyen have been going on for a long time,” the report states, later adding “the government does not want to add facilitate quick growth that triggers the need for major investments in new infrastructure, water supplies, sewage, heat and power.”

The revised policy does state it will continue to work with the tourism industry to seek some environmental regulations to boost tourism in non-protected areas such as Isfjorden and with the technology industry to revisit the guidelines for operating satellite stations in the archipelago.

As for the concern expressed by many local and national politicians about the increasing percentage of foreign residents, the revised white paper notes the trend, but suggests little to change it beyond emphasizing to foreigners to severe limits they face in terms of welfare, education and citizenship rights on the mainland.

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