For sale: Norway's pristine Arctic wilderness - the coal-rich Svalbard Islands

A swathe of the pristine Norwegian Arctic has gone on sale, but it’s not the polar bear spotting and dog-sledding opportunities which are expected entice a buyer: it is the potentially lucrative coal mine in a corner of the world increasingly attracting the attention of resource-hungry nations.

Norway’s tourism office describes the Svalbard Islands – situated half way between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole – as an “untouched Arctic wilderness” with three nature reserves, six national parks and 15 bird sanctuaries.

But while about 65 per cent of the archipelago is protected, mining has been part of the landscape on the Svalbard Islands since its settlement in the early 20th century, and the 217 square kilometres of land put up for sale recently is believed to hold about 25 million tons of coal.

The Austre Adventfjord property – roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan – is currently owned by the Horn family of industrialists, the Norwegian VG newspaper reported. A spat between the family and the Norwegian company with rights to the coal mine is believed to have spurred the sale, although only scant details were released to Norway’s press.

“The property is now for sale and I have no comments on the sales process,” said the family’s lawyer, Sveinung Flatten. No figures were given for the potential value of the land, but international financial institutions are reported to have been hired to help find a buyer, sparking debate about whether parts of the island should be allowed to fall into foreign hands.

In an editorial, VG said Svalbard was of “great strategic importance to Norway”. Willy Østreng, a director at the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, told the paper that firms from many nations including Russia, the US and China in particular might want to snap it up.

“China is in constant search of coal and other natural resources,” Mr Østreng said. “By purchasing this property they can use Svalbard as a platform for a long-term plan in the Arctic Ocean Basin.”

While no foreign companies have publicly shown an interest in the property yet, there is certainly enthusiasm for the area’s potential. The US Geological Survey estimates that 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil are in the Arctic.

Until recently the thick ice has prevented exploration of these resources, but as global warming causes the sea ice to thaw, companies and governments are eyeing up both the uncovered assets and potentially lucrative new trade routes.

Searching for the natural resources to fuel its economic growth, China is already one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland, and last year was granted observer status on The Arctic Council, a body coordinating policy in the region. The Chinese state-owned Cosco Group in September also sent a container ship on the first ever commercial journey from China to Europe via the Arctic, rather than south via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.

This is one of the most plied trade routes in the world, and by going north rather than south, between 12 and 14 days are shaved off the journey time. But ice still prevents any sailings in the winter, and environmental groups are concerned that more ships puts the delicate Arctic ecosystem at greater risk of oil spills. Political debate in Arctic nations about the environmental impact of mining in the region is also holding up much of the exploration of the natural resources.

Norway’s Green Party is fighting to preserve the wilderness of Svalbard, and at a party congress this week proposed closing down all the coal mines on the archipelago.

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