Swampland in Svalbard? Norway buys Austre Adventfjord, ‘underscores the government mess in the archipelago’

landsale

So it won’t be a Chinese holiday village after all. And it seems implausible those 20 million tons of coal will ever be mined. So just what is Norway going to do with all that land across from Longyearbyen, assuming Parliament approves a deal to purchase it for 300 million kroner?

austreadventfjord

The 217-square-kilometer Austre Adventfjord land tract near Longyearbyen will apparently remain in Norwegian hands. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

The deal to purchase the 218-square-kilometer tract known as Austre Adventfjord – one of two private land tracts in Svalbard – was announced Friday by Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland. It brings an apparent end to more than two years of efforts by a Bergen family to sell the land, purportedly to the highest bidder, although Norway said early on it would use all available means to keep the property under Norwegian ownership.

“I am very pleased that this issue seems to be solved,” Mæland said in a prepared statement. “The government will now submit it to Parliament and I hope that Parliament endorses it.”

Geir Pollestad, head of Parliament’s trade and industry committee, told NRK he supports the deal.  Erling O. Lyngtveit, an attorney representing the Bergen family, said they are satisfied with the price.

But the deal was harshly criticized by Per Arne Totland, an expert in High North policy who recently released a book that translates in English to “Cold Front: Conflict Areas in Svalbard during the past 100 years.” He told High North News the drawn-out process revealed a lack of coordination between government agencies on Svalbard policy and resulted in the state paying an inflated price for the property.

“The government’s purchase of the Austre Adventfjord property in Svalbard only underscores the government mess in the archipelago,” he said.

Mæland initially was less than fully committal to keeping the property in Norwegian hands when the property was offered for sale in the spring of 2014, which Totland said likely resulted in a rebuke – and a subsequent hasty clarification – from the justice and foreign ministries. Since then, ministry and parliamentary officials have consistently stated the property should be acquired by Norway, for strategic reasons as much as any potential economic ones.

The announcement the property was forthe sale immediately led to speculation a foreign country, mostly likely Russia or China, would buy in order to establish a significant beachhead in the area. Media reports soon after declared a Chinese tycoon wanting to develop the area as a resort had made an initial bid 656 million kroner. That was quickly debunked, with the supposed price deemed absurd and the tycoon exposed as someone who knew virtually nothing about Svalbard as he admitted he didn’t realize the archipelago was largely covered by ice.

Since then there have been occasional media reports about a sale being imminent, but without one actually taking place. Friday’s announcement came with no advance hint a deal was in the works.

In theory, the 20 million tons of coal that may be in the mountains is the most lucrative economic opportunity there, but the government or any other entity would have to cope with major mineral rights and environmental issues that have been going on for years – not to mention coals prices so low that many are skeptical any existing now-closed mines under Norwegian ownership will ever be viable to reopen.