Loan plea: Yeas, nays and frays

Erna Solbert at Arctic Frontiers 2015

The prime minister wants to keep tapping the Arctic’s energy resources at full speed despite huge price crashes. Opposing interests say it’s embarrassing pleas to keep coal mining alive in Svalbard weren’t rejected immediately. And some advertising guy earned 15,000 likes on Facebook in a couple of days for alleging the government is planning a mass sale of assets, including half of its land in Svalbard.

In short, the reaction to Store Norske’s request for a 450-million-kroner bailout so the company can continue operating beyond the next couple of months is a lot like the long-running debate about mining here, only louder.

Energy production in Norway’s Arctic has been a hot topic during the past week due largely to the annual Arctic Frontiers conference that started in Tromsø last Monday, three days after Store Norske made its loan request. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who has said she favors keeping the company alive without specifically supporting their loan, told the conference she’s committed to aggressively pushing Norway’s resource development in the north. While her comments referred specifically to oil and gas exploration, several analysts suggested her prioritizing economic interests over environmental ones bodes well for the coal company.

More definitive support for the loan is being voiced by the Labor and Progress parties, who note the debate is also about other issues such as national security.

“We cannot let Svalbard and Svalbard’s economic engine die,” said First Vice President Øyvind Korsberg, a Progress Party member, in an interview with Dagens Næringsliv. “Store Norske is crucial in regards to whether Norway will have a presence in Svalbard or not.”

Opposition is being voiced by the Green Party and various environmental organizations, as well as numerous newspapers who argue in editorials there’s little hope coal mining can become profitable in Svalbard again.

“An (alternative) plan and money to implement it should be pursued now,” a Nordlys editorial declared, adding coal mining “is in every way a dying species.”

Store Norske asserts the loan, along with layoffs and reduced operations, will allow the company to continue mining if coal prices average $65 a ton, compared to the $83 a ton needed to break even last year. But prices plunged to about $70 when the company declared itself in crisis in October and have dropped nearly $20 a ton since.

As with many debates involving Svalbard, there’s also more eclectic arguments making the rounds, sometimes to a surprisingly receptive audience.

Ingebrigt Steen Jensen, an advertising consultant, attracted a huge number of fans and media attention after publishing a Facebook page accusing the government of planning a mass sale of assets, including “half of Svalbard,” to private interests. Conservative Party leaders have said they favor the sale of some state-owned companies, but Jensen’s claims are wildly exaggerated and no such land sale is planned.