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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 17:50 GMT
Norway defends Arctic coal plan
Mountains and flowers   Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani
SNSK says Svalbard's unique ecology will be safe
Image courtesy of SNSK

Alex Kirby

Norway plans a big development of its coal industry on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic.

The proposal would mean about a threefold increase in the amount of coal mined there. Conservationists are highly critical of the plan, which they say is both unnecessary and a threat to the islands' ecology.

WWF, the global environment campaign, accuses Norway of "walking backwards into the future".

The development plan is the work of Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK, the Great Norwegian Spitsbergen Coal Company).

'Climate risk'

SNSK, a state-owned firm, has been mining coal on Svalbard since 1916, with an annual production ceiling of 400,000 tonnes.

Under the plan production will rise to about 1.2 million tonnes a year, although SNSK says it needs to mine twice as much to make a profit.

Old railway engine   A Kirby
Preserved mine train in Ny-Alesund
But WWF has condemned the plan, saying the new production figure is actually 2.5 million tonnes a year. It says that is 50% more than the firm allowed for when it carried out an environmental impact assessment of the plan.

WWF says the coal will be exported at a subsidised price to the European Union, and that by selling it Norway will be "actively working against implementation of the Kyoto Protocol" on climate change.

Rasmus Hansson of WWF-Norway said: "Coal mining at this scale in the Norwegian Arctic is not only environmentally damaging; it is completely unnecessary, especially when the Norwegian Parliament has recognised Svalbard's unique natural beauty."

WWF urged other countries "to criticise Norway for walking backwards into the future, and for not taking climate change seriously".

Cleaner fuel

It said the coal would be shipped along a vulnerable coastline "where any oil spill could have disastrous effects on the polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, beluga whales and sea birds that inhabit the area".

But Reier Soberg, director-general of Norway's Ministry of Trade and Industry, told BBC News Online: "There are misunderstandings in the WWF press release.

"The estimated annual production from SNSK's mine at Svea Nord will be just 1.2 million tonnes. The figure of 2.5 million which WWF quotes is the maximum achievable.

Site of new mine   Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani
Svea Nord, site of the new mine
Image courtesy of SNSK

"This isn't a subsidised operation. We're proposing increasing the equity capital in the expectation of a normal commercial return.

"The Svalbard coal has a high energy content, and low sulphur. It will replace greatly inferior coal being burnt in Europe at present. We're confident the Svalbard environment won't be put at risk - on that issue we're quite comfortable."

The plan will be debated in Parliament in Oslo on 19 December. The company's future forms part of the wider debate on the future of Svalbard, a pristine island group lying within 900 kilometres (600 miles) of the North Pole.

Under Norway's sovereignty, Svalbard is home to about as many Russians as Norwegians. In the cold war both countries exploited the coal, partly as a cover for other activities.

But there is growing pressure now for Svalbard to be used instead as a base for tourism and science.

See also:

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