Mar 11 2012
Plans to Dam Lower Þjórsá River Put on Hold
Three planned dams in lower Þjórsá river will not be included in a parliamentary resolution for Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, according to sources from within both governing political parties. While some might see this as a reason for celebration, one should think twice before opening up the champaign bottles as these news do not imply that this highly controversial dam project has permanently been thrown off the drawing tables. The project will simply be moved from the exploitation category to the pending category and might eventually end up in the hands of the political parties most of all responsible for Iceland’s heavy-industrialization.
Since the publication of the long-awaited Energy Master Plan’s second phase in July last year, a good part of the discussion regarding the plan has been centred around the Þjórsá river, especially as the two concerned ministers — Minister of Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir and Minister of Industry Katrín Júlíusdóttir — presented their proposition for a parliamentary resolution for the Master Plan, wherein the three Þjórsá dams were included. Following a three months long public commentary process — including 225 commentaries by individuals, organizations and companies, of which more than 70 had specifically to do with Þjórsá — the above-mentioned ministers have been working on amending their proposal in order for it to go through parliamentary discussion before the end of parliament sessions this spring.
The Energy Master Plan, which is supposed to lay the foundation for a long-term settlement upon the future exploitation and protection of Iceland natural resources, is split into three categories, of which two are quite clear, titled “exploitation” and “protection”, but the third one, titled “in waiting”, has pretty much been the bone of contention. On the one hand those in favour of extreme energy extraction believe that too many exploitable areas are being kept in waiting, while on the other hand environmentalists think that many of the areas categorized as in waiting should rather be moved straight into the protection category.
As frequently highlighted by Saving Iceland, the Þjórsá conflict splits the government, manifested in the Left Green’s focus on nature conservation versus the social democratic People’s Alliance’s (Samfylkingin) focus on so-called job creation. According to the above-mentioned news an additional inside split has occurred within the latter party, wherein a part wants to follow the Left Green line while others would rather give the go ahead for the three dams in lower Þjórsá.
During a radio interview this morning, Össur Skarphéðinsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and MP for the People’s Alliance, pointed out that according to laws regarding the Energy Master Plan, environmentalist organizations should be asked to comment on energy options, and more importantly, their comments should be taken into account when final decisions are made. Considering the high quantity of negative remarks about the Þjórsá dams, in addition to the fact that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for one of the three dams, Urriðafoss dam, will expire next year, Skarphéðinsson claimed it sensible to move Þjórsá to the waiting category until further researches and a new EIA have been made.
However, by moving the project from exploitation to waiting, but not straight to protection, it is not unlikely that the final decision about the Þjórsá dams will be in the hands of a different government. Recent polls suggest that the current government will not stand after parliamentary elections next year and that the right wing conservative party, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (e. Independence Party), might end up as the biggest party. The Independence Party has repeatedly pushed for the damming of Þjórsá, most recently in December last year when 10 of the party’s MPs proposed a bill in parliament, suggesting an interim provision allowing the Minister of Industry, rather than Iceland’s Energy Authority, to grant the National Power Company (Landsvirkjun) permission to start building the three proposed dams.
Landsvirkjun has repeatedly stated that no contracts exist concerning the possible energy from lower Þjórsá and that the company will not enter any negotiations regarding Þjórsá until the Master Plan is ready, given that the river will be included in the exploitation category. However both environmentalists and heavy-industrialists believe that the Þjórsá dams are in fact crucial for the continued construction of Century Aluminum’s planned but currently on-hold aluminium smelter in Helguvík. Parliamentarians as well as local politicians in Reykjanesbær, the municipality of where Helguvík is located, have recently mentioned the delay of the Þjórsá dams as one of the main reasons for the standstill situation of the Helguvík project, whereas environmentalists have pointed out that at least the planned Urriðafoss dam is needed for the Helguvík smelter to operate.