Nov 24 2009

Government and Interested Parties Wage a War Against Iceland’s Wilderness

Reykjanes Peninsula Geological MapLast Saturday, November 21st, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland’s prime minister and the head of Samfylkingin (social democratic populist party), said that she is completely sure that all hindrances that could possibly stand in the way of the construction of Suðvesturlína (electricity lines) will be removed as soon as possible. Suðvesturlína is supposed to transport energy from the Hellisheiði geothermal powerplant (south of Reykjavík) and other energy sources to the Reykjanes peninsula, e.g. to run Century Aluminum’s new 360 ton smelter, which is currently being built in Helguvík.

At the same opportunity, Sigurðardóttir announced her hopes for that Landsvirkjun (Iceland’s national energy company) could start construction of Búðarhálsvirkjun hydro-dam in Tungná river, early next spring. The energy from there is supposed to run increased aluminium production in Rio Tinto-Alcan’s smelter in Hafnarfjörður. Sigurðardóttir said that employment affairs must be the biggest issue for social democtrats in the upcoming regional elections that will take place in the spring of 2010. She raised her voice for the necessity of increased development with the help of “eco-friendly” energy sources.

Few weeks ago, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the minster of environment (from Vinstri Græn, the left green party) decided to rejecte the decision of Iceland’s National Planning Agency, which stated that Suðvesturlínur would not have to go through a joint environmental impact assessment (EIA) with other projects that concern the construction of the Helguvík smelter. She did not decide that the projects would have to go through a joint EIA, but sent the case back to the Planning Agency, which shortly later announced the same decision as before. It is uncertain what Svavarsdóttir will do now, since it is obvious that with her words, prime minister Sigurðardóttir is putting pressure on Svavarsdóttir not to change the Planning Agency’s decission. Svavarsdóttir said she is surprised by the words of the prime minister since the issue has not been discussed in government.

INCA (Iceland’s Nature Conservation Agency) is preparing to sue the Planning Agency’s deceision. INCA and environmentalists ask where the energy for the Helguvík smelter is going to come from. Even from the beginning of the discussion about a smelter a 360 ton smelter in Helguvík – which now is supposed to be built in four 90 ton parts, the first one to be ready in 2012 – environmentalists and other aware people have pointed out the uncertainity concerning energy for the smelter. Century Aluminum keeps to its words, stating that the smelter will be run on geothermal energy only, which means that the geothermal areas in the whole Reykjanes peninsula will dry up. The expansion of Hellisheiði power plant – followed with even more destruction of the geothermal areas there – is then supposed to supply what is needed.

This will though not be enough. The Helguvík smelter therefor relies on the building of hydro-dams, most likely in the lower Thjórsá river in the south of Iceland, where Landsvirkjun plans to build three large dams. But still, this is not enough either. Recently, Ólafur G. Flóvenz, the director of Iceland’s Energy Researches, said that it will not be possible to harness enough energy for the Helguvík smelter in the upcoming years, at least according to what energy projects are on the table at the moment.

Adding to this, Alcoa still plans to build a smelter in Bakki, in the north of Iceland, run on geothermal energy only. That propaganda is of course complete nonsence, since the energy capacity simply is not enough. So in addition to destroying the geothermal areas around lake Myvatn and volcano Krafla, hydro-dams have to be built in one of the glacial rivers of the north – Skjalfandafljot being the most likely target.

It is not hard to understand what this means. If the construction of the Helguvík smelter goes on as planned, including the energy production required, we will see the complete destruction of the wilderness of southwest Iceland. The execution of the energy master plan of Iceland’s government, which now consists of political parties that were not in government when the plan was designed – is being continued as this is written.

In the area of the lower Thjórsá river, there is a fierce opposition to Landsvirkjun’s plans, even though the company has tried what ever they can to convince people to let go of their resistance against the projects – even threatening land expropriation. The same story is to tell in Hafnarfjörður, where Rio Tinto-Alcan’s plans for enlarging the smelter were voted down in a local referendum in the spring of 2007. But the city authorities, with the majority of the social democrats, have completely ignored the decission and officially supported the enlargment. Now, smelter supporters have collected enough signatures to demand another refendum about the same issue, which is likely to take place parallel to the regional elections next spring. This is how it is going to be: referendum after a referendum until enough people have been convinced to vote for the enlargement. And then, the possibility of voting the plans down is out of the picture. This is what democracy looks like!

Although we are witnessing increased environmental awareness, due to the heavy critique and direct resistance against the energy master plan, which has taken place in the last years – Landsvirkjun, the aluminium companies and the government have a strong support team, consisting of different associations who have waged a war against Iceland’s wilderness in the name of development and the reconstruction of the Icelandic economy. The Associations of Industry and Economy have for the last six month constantly pushed on the government to remove all possible hindrances from “necessary” energy projects that according to them, will bring life into the economy again. In the name of stability, these associations, among many other parties, demand the complete harnessing of all possible energy sources in the country. Their aggressive campaign against Iceland’s wilderness has to be replied to in at least as aggressive manners.