The first verdict from Parliament: Pursuing environmentally sustainable industries in Svalbard in the future is a worthy goal, but so is allowing Store Norske to continue its coal mining operations for now.
That message was expressed Tuesday as Parliament by a 51-47 vote approved a Green Party resolution declaring the government should emphasize development of sustainable industries in Svalbard. But a vast majority of the “yes” votes came from parties that are expressing support for Store Norske as it seeks a 450-million-kroner bailout loan the company says is necessary to continue operating beyond June.
All 30 members of the Labor Party present during Tuesday debate voted in favor of the resolution, for example, but Kåre Simensen, who presented his party’s arguments, said pursing sustainable industries doesn’t mean supporting the Green Party’s position that mining should end in Svalbard.
“For the Labor Party it is important to ensure and maintain the great expertise the Store Norske mining company possess regarding mining and industrial activities in the north,” he said. Furthermore, “imposing a ban on mining on Svalbard is a question that will also affect the Svalbard Treaty and which will trigger extensive work with an uncertain outcome.”
Also joining the lone Green Party member in favor of the resolution were five members of the Left Party, which has already endorsed Store Norske’s loan request, along with six members of the Center Party, five members of the Christian Democratic Party and four members of the Socialist Left Party.
Opposing the resolution were the 28 members of the Conservative Party and 19 members of the Progress Party. Trond Helleland, presenting the Conservative Party’s overview, said he believes the revised white paper should be completed before lawmakers decide on the proper course for Svalbard’s future and the objective sought in the resolution “is well taken care of through the government’s announcement that they will present a report.”
A similar proposal by the Green Party was rejected in December, but Rasmus Hansson, presenting his party’s case, said the wording was slightly revised following the government’s announcement a new white paper is being drafted. He disagreed with Helleland’s assertion the resolution is unnecessary since there is little to suggest the government will place an emphasis on sustainable industries.
“We have received many Svalbard reports, also in the period in which climate and the coal question has been on the agenda, and all these reports have with great meticulousness avoided to treat this issue in a serious way,” he said. “With the signals provided about desiring to further support to coal production on Svalbard, it is far from obvious that the government intends to take the coal question in Svalbard seriously in this report. Therefore we need this decision.”
Hansson also criticized the Labor Party, despite its support, after Simensen discussed the need to “secure coal mining in both the short and long term” in Svalbard.
“It is striking that the Labor Party, which in other contexts is eager to draw the Government Pension Fund investments out of coal, believes that it is an entirely different matter to subsidize unprofitable coal production in Svalbard by the Norwegian government,” Hansson said.
The Norwegian government owns 99.9 percent of Store Norske, thus necessitating Parliament’s approval of the loan requests the company says are necessary to continue operations beyond June. The company is seeking 400 million kroner to continue mining and 50 million kroner for restructuring to allow expansion into other industries such as infrastructure.
Christin Kristoffersen, a Labor Party member who has led the local political effort to lobby for approval of the loans, said Tuesday she believes there are “a surplus of votes” favoring the loans in Parliament. She said she expects the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries to announce if it will recommend the loan to lawmakers either this Friday or next, with a vote by Parliament possible before the end of April.