Norway is proposing a total heavy oil ban for Svalbard – here’s the reactions as it also fights in court for its right to Arctic oil drilling happening just beyond the archipelago’s boundaries

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An expanded ban on ships using heavy oil in all of Svalbard’s waters, instead of just designated nature areas, is generally earning praise from environmentalists after being proposed by Norway’s government this past week.

But as the government awaits public input from other interests the environmentalists are using the proposal to highlight other “hypocritical” government activities such as oil drilling in the region that’s the subject of a landmark lawsuit occurring as the proposal was announced.

The proposal would expand a ban on heavy oil enacted in 2015 that bans it from Svalbard’s national park waters. Ministry of Climate and the Environment, in a press release, states the ban exists because of spills can cause immense damage due to the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem combined with how heavy oil behaves in low temperatures and ice.

“If such oil is released in the event of an accident on Svalbard, it could lead to major and long-term damage to the environment,” the release states. “In addition, large distances, ice, cold and poor access to oil spill response resources mean that emergency preparedness and clean-up will be difficult and expensive.”

The ministry is now in the public comment period of the process, but so far the public “dissenting” remarks are focusing on the shortcomings of official efforts to limit such ship traffic, and Norway’s other activities in Svalbard and the surrounding Arctic seen as hypocritical.

The Clean Arctic Alliance is (of course) among the organizations endorsing the proposal,

“Norway leads the way amongst Arctic nations in getting rid of HFO from Arctic waters, and is demonstrating international leadership by going above and beyond the weak ambitions of Arctic HFO ban currently being considered by the International Maritime Organization,” a statement issued by the group declares.

Exemptions and waivers in the IMO proposal drafted early this year means practically speaking it won’t take full effect until 2029, according to the alliance. It projects 74 percent of Arctic shipping will continue normally and the volume will increase as more traffic passes through the areas opening up due to climate change.

Also, newer ships replacing older vessels will reportedly be able to take advantage of the exemption or change flag and seek a waiver from the ban.

The government’s proposal for Svalbard will take effect Jan. 1, 2022, if enacted as written. There is a transition period of two years for general cargo traffic to Longyearbyen and the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg.

But while the Norwegian government’s ban proposal is being generally praised by environmental groups, the country’s other commercial activities remain a concern. Among the most prominent is a “trial of the century” now taking place in Oslo and Greenpeace and other environmental groups pursue a longshot lawsuit aimed at banning Norway from drilling oil in its Arctic territory.

“Norway should do more to move away from oil and gas drilling/prospecting if it truly wants to protect its land,” one commenter wrote on Reddit.

Some also brought up Norway preserving a strong human presence in Svalbard and activities such as tourism in the area, perennial issues for those concerned about a variety of environmental impacts also including ocean pollution and polar bear confrontations.

“As soon as (the ban) up and running can you assess the helicopter traffic to and from the North Pole as well,” inquired a reader responding to an article by Teknisk Ukeblad. “It’s ridiculous that every single day all summer a helicopter flies from Longyearbyen to the North Pole with tourists who then drink a glass of champagne and take a few pictures before flying back.”

(Note: the reader’s concerns about impacts aside, North Pole expeditions from Longyearbyen to the North Pole typically occur during a three-week period in April – but have been cancelled the past two years due to political snafus affecting pilots in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic this year.)

Public opposition to Arctic heavy oil bans by the shipping industry has been scant recently due to the global political climate – Russian interests being a notable exception – but their lobbying has resulted in the “loopholes” in some proposals allowing exemptions and/or long-term delays.