Jul 16 2010
This post is also available in: Icelandic
Greenland’s Decision: Nature or Culture?
Climate change has made Greenland the next industrial frontier, but at what cost?
Humanity is in denial. We know that our hyperactive extraction of fuels, metals and minerals, and their dirty processing, consuming and dumping for our consumer ‘growth’ society is killing the planet and ourselves. We also know that all of these sugary treats are finite. But like an insolent toddler we continue; more and more, faster and faster – running in denial from the planetary spanking that is undoubtedly coming our way.
I have often hoped that the global emergency of climate change, combined with the inescapable reality of peak oil would wake us up from this selfish resource-gorging, and perhaps it still will before it is too late (too late: I.e tomorrow? 2012? 2020? a few months ago?). But in the meantime, nature has given western capitalism one last laugh. As the ice drips and cracks from Greenland’s white mass it is exposing a treasure trove of minerals, metals, ores and oil (one of the highest concentrations in the world), and plentiful hydro-power to help us heat, break and alter them into things we ‘need’. Just as the candle wick flares and gutters on our oil-driven consumptive society Greenland’s bounty has given it one more chance. One last bright flame, to hide from us the surrounding darkness.
Queuing up for the best bites
All the big names are queuing up for a ticket to the earth’s last free banquet. Statoil, Chevron and Exxon-Mobil want oil, True North Gems are after diamonds, gold and rubies, and Alcoa is chasing the newly roaring melt-waters of ancient ice, for dams and hydro-power to smelt aluminium.
Greenland Minerals and Energy (who are not a national project, but an Australian mining consortium) have their hearts set on uranium, zinc and the magical sounding ‘rare earth elements’ – essential for the equally magical technology in our apple macs, i-pods and digital cameras. They describe their mission as; “unlocking the mineral riches of Greenland, one of the world’s last natural resource frontiers”. “Unlocking” – as though they are freeing something trapped in the earth and desperate to get out, as though the earth has cruelly kept it from them, but we will suffer no more.. this “frontier” will be conquered, tamed and made to serve our needs.
But what about the Greenlanders? How do they feel about their isolated island being invaded by American, Australian, British and Norwegian suits, helicopters and drilling rigs? They are faced with an impossible conundrum. Having blamed fossil-fuel induced climate change for destroying their land and traditional livelihoods for so long, they are now promised that drilling oil, and adding to climate change, is the only way they can finally become financially independent from Denmark.
Social versus environmental freedom. That is the stark choice. You can’t have both, either the land will prosper or the people. Man versus nature. Simple as that.
Kárahnjúkar: History repeating itself in Greenland
But this choice is not so easy for Greenlanders. British newspaper The Times quotes Greenlandic geologist Minik Rosing speaking about one of the planned projects:
“We know Black Angel (mining project) was really bad for the environment the first time. It ruined the fjord. Is it OK to ruin three or four fjords in order to build the country? I hate to even think this, but we have a lot of fjords…We’re very aware that we’ll cause more climate change by drilling for oil. But should we not when it can buy us our independence?”
My mind is cast back to the debates over Alcoa Fjardaal and Karahnjukar. The stark choices Icelanders faced then too, when the politicians said “we have to live”, “this is the only way we can survive”, “do you want to go back to the turf houses?” etc. And for a while Iceland was bathed in the glory of mega-projects, and the promise of mega-money. Did those promises materialise? The recent revelations about the price aluminium companies are paying for Icelandic power suggests not. In fact the smelters and dams may even have contributed to the financial crisis by so greatly reducing the national coffers in big loans for their construction, and getting little back in return.
But for Alcoa Iceland is already old news. The Greenland smelter will be bigger, ‘greener’ and possibly cheaper than Fjardaal (the negotiated price has not been revealed). In fact it is to be one of the world’s largest smelters ever, starting at 400,000 tons a year, and requiring the damming of two major rivers for 650 MW of energy. The similarities in the project, and the way Alcoa is pushing it are striking.
A top of the line, self-sustainable aluminium smelter?
Greenland’s prime minister Kuupik Kleist has announced that “any aluminium made in Greenland will benefit our global climate if replacing aluminium produced elsewhere in the world where renewable energy sources are not available for the production”. Alcoa calls it “a wonderful opportunity” for themselves and Greenland to build “a world-class, sustainable aluminum smelter, powered by renewable hydroelectric energy”. Sound familiar?
Yet the preliminary EIA carried out by the consultancy Environmental Resource Management (who have passed projects for such clean companies as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola and Anglo-American), shows that Greenland’s CO2 emissions alone will increase by 75% and will require a Kyoto exemption just like Iceland did for Fjardaal. The smelter will also produce 4,600 tons of SO2, 110 tons of fluorides and 7.1 tons of PFC gases (corresponding to 46,000 tons of CO2 equivalents) per year. The EIA claims that fluorides will have a particularly severe impact in Greenland because of the fragility of their ecosystems. Despite promising the latest in clean and green operations Alcoa have made no guarantee that they will fork out for scrubbing technology which the EIA claims could reduce this mega-impact. They certainly never did at Fjardaal.
The dam reservoirs will flood a large and biodiverse affecting Caribou migrations, populations of Arctic char depended on by fishermen and will affect over 9 towns and villages. One of these effects will be the loss of sources of drinking water, which will have to be imported from elsewhere at greater cost. Though some employment benefit is predicted many of the 600 jobs generated at the finished smelter will have to be filled by foreign workers. The EIA suggests that this is likely to increase crime rates and require extra police to be brought in from Denmark.
Culture at stake
But most striking of all is the potential cultural destruction. According to the EIA the planned reservoir at Tasersiaq will drown ‘a significant amount of newly discovered, still unstudied remains from the Inuit past, and possibly from earlier pre-Inuit cultures…Sites that are inundated by the rising water levels..will be inaccessible to study in the foreseeable future’. In other words this incredible cultural heritage will be gone, wiped, forgotten. Is this the cultural independence and freedom Greenlanders long for? Aqqaluk Lynge, a politician, poet and a leading member of the Inuit community is quoted by The Times; “Of course we want development,” he says. “We want our independence. But we don’t want to lose our souls in the process.”
The discourse promoted by Alcoa and it’s newly wed – the Greenland government – speaks, as it did in Iceland, of the moral obligation of Greenlanders to host ‘green’ aluminium smelters. It seems they should even be proud to sacrifice some of their extensive nature and unusual culture for the good of the world, to make aluminium smelting slightly less bad than it might otherwise be elsewhere. Because we ‘need’ aluminium, there’s no arguing over that.
So Iceland has done it’s bit, Greenland will do it’s bit, Norway is doing it’s bit, the hydro-powered smelters in Canada are doing their bit, Brazil’s new dams will do their bit, the world’s largest bauxite mine planned in Vietnam will do it’s bit. And thanks to all of that sacrifice Alcoa predicts only a 20% increase in it’s climate wrecking emissions by 2020, alongside thousands of acres of forest destruction, indigenous displacement, water poisoning and health effects on local communities. While 150 million tonnes of discarded aluminium lie dumped in our soils, played with and spent. But what does that matter when we have our planes, cars, computers and phones? What do we need ecosystems and a stable climate for anyway?
Meanwhile the smelter marches on. In 2009 Gunnar Jónsson from Fjardabyggd visited Greenland to show them how the eastern municipality had ‘prepared the local community’ for the plant at Fjardaal. But I wonder what advice other Icelanders would give to their neighbouring island. Was it really worth it? I suppose it’s too soon to say how the aluminium mega-powers might have contributed to the political corruption, economic instability and environmental tragedy that has unfolded in Iceland. But perhaps they would at least warn the Greenlanders to be wary of promises of freedom and prosperity. And if they are not worth so much after all, then perhaps a soul is more worth keeping.
An Icelandic translation of this article by Miriam Rose originally appeared in the July issue of the monthly newspaper Róstur