Despite growing numbers of tourism in Svalbard, coal mining still takes the lions share in revenues of the archipelago. The Norwegian government has now decided to continue the financial subsidiaries for this controversial production of raw materials. It seems as if this decision has been taken rather by arguments in terms of security policy than in economical terms.
Environmental organizations are protesting for a long time already against the exploitation of coal on Svalbard. Even the UN Executive Secretary for the climate convention, Christina Figueres, called the local mining activities “incongruent” with Svalbards role in climate change research. The arctic archipelago poses a fragile ecosystem burdened by coal mining. Besides, as a prosperous country, Norway is obliged to take up a leading role in climate protection is another argument. Even more so as Norway likes to encourage other nations to reduce coal mining out of environmental reasons. Next to its questionable environmental record, coal mining is now also economically questionable, too. Only six months ago, Store Norske, in charge of coal mining in Svalbard, had laid off around 100 workers, around one quarter of its total employees. Dropping prices for coal and a forced increase in efficiency were responsible for this step. On a purely economic basis, Store Norske would not be viable anymore.
However, even with reduced personnel, Store Norske remains the most important employer on Svalabrd. Tourism and other activities were not able to offer an adequate replacement. In the face of the political situation with Russia, it seems as if Norway prefers to prevent a depopulation of the archipelago, which is under its jurisdiction; even if it means to spend budget money because the deficient coal mine needs to be subsidized. Thus, security policy aspects determine the pace of the government in Oslo when it comes to Svalbard. Based on the international treaty dated from 1920, the archipelago is a de-militarized zone with free access to all signature states. Russia is the only other state, which keeps a permanent settlement Barentsburg on the main island of Spitsbergen, including a consulate.