MINE 7 CLOSING IN 2023: Shutdown of last Norwegian coal mine accelerated again as Longyearbyen will switch to diesel for power; production to increase for final two years


Photo courtesy of Store Norske

The last Norwegian coal mine will cease operations in 2023 – five years sooner than an already accelerated plan envisioned just months ago – as Longyearbyen’s Community Council voted this week to shut down the town’s coal-fired power plant and temporarily switch to diesel until a permanent alternative source is determined.

As a result, Store Norske said it cannot operate Mine 7 profitably without supplying the power plant, although it will boost the mine’s production by about 30 percent until the shutdown to take advantage of current high coal prices in Europe. The shutdown will result in the loss of about 55 man-years of labor.

“Mine 7 exists to supply coal to the energy plant in Longyearbyen” Store Norske Administrative Director Jan Morten Ertsaas said in a prepared statement. “Since the agreement to supply coal to the energy plant has now been terminated there is no longer a basis for operating the mine. We have been engaged in coal production on Svalbard for over a hundred years, so it is especially significant to reach the end date for the coal adventure.”

“After the power plant has received what they need, we sell surplus coal to Europe. This helps to make it less expensive, but with normal coal prices it costs between 40 and 60 million kroner a year to run the mine.”

The company is planning to increase the current annual production of about 90,000 tons of coal to more than 125,000 tons until the shutdown.

Longyearbyen was founded on coal mining in 1906 and the closure will officially mark the “end of an era” that’s been hanging over the town since 2017 when the Norwegian government – which owns Store Norske – decided to shut down all mining due to a long-term collapse in coal prices that sent the company billions of kroner into debt. A decision was subsequently made to dismantle all mining infrastructure at the largest mines – Svea and Lunckefjell – and restore the areas to their natural origins.

Both of those decisions came as a shock to many local residents and officials, who argued it made more economic sense – not to mention an easier transition for the workers and community to a post-mining future – to continue operating the mines until they are tapped out. Until the council approved the power plant shutdown, spurred by support from the central government to transition to other sources, a plan announced in February was to begin a phasing out of the plant in 2025 that would last until 2028.

“I think it’s awful,” Svein Jonny Albrigtsen, the safety supervisor in Mine 7 and leader of the Svalbard Labor Party, told NRK. “We had prepared coal for another seven years of operation.”

Although economics were the primary reason Norway’s government opted to cease mining, political/environmental issues have also received plenty of attention – especially since the country has ridded itself of coal investments in its oil wealth fund while continuing mining operations in what it calls the country’s environmental “crown jewel.” (It is also the target of similar accusations of hypocrisy for aggressively pursuing oil exploration in the Arctic – including areas right at Svalbard’s maritime boundaries – while proclaiming to be a global leader on climate change prevention.)

“The Arctic islands are warming faster than almost anywhere on Earth, highlighting the risks to fragile ecosystems from climate change, and Norway aims to cut its overall emissions, although it also remains a major oil and gas producer,” a story published by Reuters about the Mine 7 shutdown notes.

The contrasts, highlighted by environmental organzations such as Greenpeace which have called for an end to Arctic oil drilling as well as various political entities, didn’t escape the notice of readers commenting on the story.

“Pure show for the climate cult,” a commenter using the name Badru Aguta wrote. “If Norway was serious about the existential crisis of climate change they would stop drilling and exporting oil. But oil funds Norway’s nanny state benefits. So that won’t happen.”

Coal mining won’t cease in Svalbard after the shutdown since Russia still operates a mine in Barentsburg that employs roughly 200 people and has indicated it intends to do so as far into the future as possible as part of its effort to maintain a strong presence in the archipelago for strategic reasons as it seeks to expand its Arctic presence.

The same strategic issues are among the top international priorities cited by Norway’s government and Ertsaas said he expects Store Norske to continue playing a large role in Longyearbyen’s post-mining future.

“We will to operate with housing, commercial real estate and logistics at the same time as we have a great ambition to continue to be an energy company, but by restructuring fossil energy plants in Svalbard and the Arctic,” he said. While renewable sources are the perceived future “it is urgent (for the government) to put in place funds for this change.”