Build a wall – or at least a few barriers – to prevent unwanted intrusions. Give the coal mining industry a new life. Embrace the Russians while seeking solutions for dangerous territory.
No, Svalbard likely won’t look like Donald Trump’s American, but the proposals were part of the revised “white paper” for Svalbard debated by Parliament on Tuesday. The document outlining policy goals for Svalbard is being updated three years earlier than expected due to a coal price crisis that has shut down nearly all Norwegian operations here.
“There is broad agreement in Parliament on the main aspects that the government added to the message,” said Trine Skei Grande, head of the Liberal Party that is part of the Conservative led ruling coalition, in her opening remarks of the debate. “There is also considerable agreement about the challenges that the Svalbard community now faces.”
“And I actually – and it doesn’t often happen, at least not these days – praise the government for the work that has done on the environmental part of the message. Committee endorses it. It’s a pretty good balance between a better and more active management of the Svalbard environment and the possibility of using it in a good way without destroying the values that we are appointed to administer.”
It’s also important to ensure Svalbard remains a family-oriented community, implement contingency plans to deal with problems such as avalanche dangers and climate change, make a strong effort to increase scientific research, determine a reliable and low-polluting long-term energy supply, and clarify regulations allowing the establishment of a fish processing industry, Grande said.
She also noted the proposed revision addresses some smaller and more specific issues, including boosting the level of veterinary care due to the large dog population in the archipelago and allow the retail sale of beer with a higher alcohol content than currently allowed.
Parliament is expected to approved a final version of the revised white paper next spring. Much of Tuesday’s debate focused on additional information lawmakers want from the government and addressing developments after the paper was drafted, including a recommendation for a new twin-pier floating harbor in Longyearbyen that can handle a large projected increase in cruise and other ships.
The first draft of the revised paper was criticized by many local political and business leaders for lacking specifics and funding commitments. The version debated by Parliament on Tuesday contained amendments approved earlier this month by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but several lawmakers said they are disappointed the document still fails to sufficiently define a role for Store Norske as the state-owned company ponders tourism, research and other post-mining activities.
“I and Labor Party had wanted a more concrete direction for this message,” said Martin Henriksen, a Labor Party member from the Troms region. “The future of Store Norske is not clear and there must be more examination from the government’s side to support development towards new economic activities.”
Liv Signe Navarsete, a Center Party member from the Sogn and Fjordane region, said she also heard from many people seeking policies that will allow an expansion of tourism “their experience had not suggested we have a government that is active and forward with regard to this.”
Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen, whose department has jurisdictional oversight of Svalbard, said during a lengthy question-and-answer period with lawmakers the government has provided stimulus money to Store Norske and other entities during the past couple of years and approved a number of measures aimed at diversifying economic activity in the archipelago.
“When I talk with business up there, I experienced the opposite of what Representative Navarsete claims that she experienced,” he said. “Namely, I feel that sector is extremely pleased that we have a government that supports economic development in Svalbard, that helps to facilitate an integrated effort, that takes seriously the suggestions that come from the business world with a view to facilitate further economic development. So we’re talking obviously with different people.”
Maintaining a strong Norwegian presence in Svalbard for strategic reasons is an oft-stated goal of policymakers and was mentioned by several of those speaking Tuesday. Kåre Simensen, a Labor Party member from the Finnmark region, noted the revised white paper focuses largely on domestic goals, but “we know that many nations have their eyes directed towards Svalbard.”
“The interest in the Arctic means Svalbard is also important from a geopolitical perspective,” he said. “For that reason there is reason to believe that Norway’s Svalbard policy is also of great interest for other nations. Russia is tempting to point out in this context.”
The government and entities in the archipelago should take advantage of the area’s strengths to ensure a strong presence and good international relations, Simensen said. He said recent cooperative research projects and emergency rescue exercises are among such efforts that have been successful.
Among the specific provisions in the report considered Tuesday by Parliament are:
• Committing to approve and fund preventative measures to reduce avalanche risks in settled areas, which could range from protective barriers to new buildings in safer areas. The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate is expected to release its recommendations by the end of the year.
• Taking a “broad and open” approach to determine Svalbard’s power supply, with an emphasis on moving away from coal. Among the proposals suggested is a power cable from the mainland.
• Transfer management of Ny-Ålesund from Kings Bay AS to The Norwegian Polar Institute, a controversial provision that officials have said will likely take at least a few years to implement
• Allow the retail sale of beer with up to seven percent alcohol content instead of the current limit of 4.75 percent.
•Attempt to enroll a higher percentage of Norwegian students at The University Centre in Svalbard.