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Chilly coal protest leaves hazy impact
Day-long blockade at Svea by Greenpeace a unique event, but some call it more hot air than hot news
A banner objecting to coal mining at Svea is displayed from a loading facility occupied by protesters from the environmental group Friday. Members from a three-month sea voyage intended to raise awareness about climate change blocked a shipment of coal from being loaded for more than 24 hours before complying with orders by police to leave or face criminal charges. Photo provided by Greenpeace.

They kept a shipment of coal from leaving Svea for a day, but did they accomplish anything?

Greenpeace staged what may have been Svalbard's first such political protest Friday by blockading an 81,000-ton shipment of coal destined for Portugal as several members from a sea expedition climbed onto cranes at the mine. They were removed peacefully by police Saturday and their ship departed the area for Tromsø on Monday with no criminal charges or fines being levied.

Members of the organization said afterward they accomplished their goal of calling attention to the environmental dangers posed by continuing coal mining in the pristine Arctic.

"We managed to stop the plant," said Truls Gulowsen, a member of Greenpeace who lives in Oslo. "We had a good tone with local authorities and the operation took place quietly."

But observers locally and elsewhere questioned a publicity strategy of implying world leaders such as Barrack Obama led the protest, the logic in targeting a mine with relatively "clean" coal, and the pollution generated by their voyage and police officials responding to the scene.

Furthermore, local officials with the international CARE campaign for improverished women say they lost 20,000 kroner when Svalbard Gov. Odd Olsen Ingerø had to cancel a car wash fundraiser Saturday so he could deal with the blockade. CARE officials are demanding compensation from Greenpeace, but Gulowsen said his organization won't contribute beyond providing the protesters information about the fundraising efforts.

The protest also got little news attention outside of Norway as a similar demonstration in Canada on the same day reaped more headlines - to say nothing of coverage a couple of days later when 700 people stripped naked in a French vineyard and hundreds more bared all on a Swiss glacier.

"I’m guessing that living in a tree for months on end or chaining themselves to heavy machinery wasn’t getting the message across," wrote Katie Machol, green community editor for the alternative newspaper Creative Loafing in Tampa, Fla., in a blog response to the nudity protests.

Greenpeace members willingly agree world leaders are responding poorly to the organization's concerns as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December approaches. Greenpeace is studying and raising awareness about global warming issues during its three-month voyage aboard the Arctic Sunrise, a former seal-hunting vessel until the group chartered it in 1995. The organization has since used it for activities such as disrupting the installation of oil facilities at sea and chasing whaling ships from waters in the southern hemisphere.

Their arrival at Svea on Thursday evening came near the end of their climate awareness journey and, while there were suspicions about their intent, the pitch at least was aboveboard.

"They asked to come to visit to get information about mining operations and plans for new mining in Lunckefjell," an article in Store Norske's most recent newsletter notes. Company officials gave the visitors a tour of the facility, "but Friday they had completely different plans."

"Early in the morning, six or seven activists illegally entered into the coal pier at Kapp Amsterdam, climbed up on the loading facility, pressed the emergency stop and barricaded themselves on the control bridge," the newsletter notes. "Thus, they stopped the loading of the M/V Pascha."

Store Norske officials didn't try to remove the protesters, "consciously choosing to calm down the situation," but when that proved futile contacted the Svalbard governor's office for help. Police and other officials from the governor's office arrived Thursday evening, telling Greenpeace representatives they needed to leave the mine by 8 a.m. Saturday, according to Deputy Gov. Lars Faus.

"It was also informed that they risked punishment if they are not complied with this order," he wrote in an e-mail.

Greenpeace members, who've been arrested in large numbers at other protests and endured a -15°C night at the mine, initially indicated they didn't intend to go quietly.

"We will hold on as long as possible here," said Jan Martin Norman, a member of the group, told NRK at the 8 a.m. deadline. "We are willing to be arrested and imposed fines."

A Greenpeace protester is escorted off the Svea mining facility by Svalbard police Saturday morning. Store Norske officials said they did not want to pursue criminal charges or fines if the blockade ended peacefully.

But about an hour later, after police reiterated the leave-or-be-arrested ultimatum, the group backed down. A video posted at Greenpeace's Web site shows police climbing onto the crane and escorting the protesters down.

"We pulled back to avoid dangerous situations," Norman said. "We are still to be in the area to conduct further documentation."

The Arctic Sunrise remained in the vicinity without incident until resuming its scheduled itinerary Monday and departing for the final destination of Tromsø.

No criminal charges or fines were imposed because the incident occurred on Store Norske property and company officials said they did not want to seek punishment if the demonstrators left voluntarily, Faus wrote. He and other officials said they are not aware of any similar political protests previously in Svalbard.

The protest was mostly a two-day story (they're here, they're gone) getting modest coverage in the Norwegian media. Global coverage was nearly non-existent, with the Reuters news service running a short blurb, an Indian newspaper printing a somewhat longer article about a youth working as a deckhand on the voyage and some environmental blogs taking note.

Part of the reason may have been the press release sent by Greenpeace to news organizations, which begins by stating "Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and other world leaders today finally took action on climate change by preventing a shipment of coal from being loaded onto a transport ship from a mine in Svalbard."

"'Can we quit coal? Yes we can!' said President Barack Obama. 'I and my colleagues are fired up and ready to go to Copenhagen, where we're going to help the world kick its carbon habit for good.'"

It's not until the eighth paragraph the release notes "sadly, in the real world the actions of world leaders - including the real Obama and Merkel - fall far short of their rhetoric." It never mentions the "leaders" were protesters wearing masks during the initial phase of the blockade. Since most news organizations are deluged by press releases, those long on hype and short on facts tend to get ignored.

"In dealing with groups like Greenpeace since getting out of school some time ago, I can tell you that people with an emotional attachment to an issue will usually be unable to see any logic around a situation," wrote Kevin Dugan, co-founder of The Bad Pitch Blog, which analyzes the effectiveness of press releases, when asked to assess the Svea protest statement. "That said, this doesn't look like a news release and it's obviously misleading by suggesting President Obama is hanging out with Greenpeace."

Gulowsen, during his Monday interview from Oslo, acknowledged emphasizing the merits of the issue and unusual location of the protest might have been a stronger angle.

"It's true we're disappointed with the lack of international coverage," he said. "That was the aim … when we tried with the heads of state, trying to play with words and people. I think it's fair to conclude already that sort of gimmicking when in such a blockade is not the best way for such a situation."

A second factor may have been a similar protest on the same day at a Shell oil facility in Alberta, Canada, resulting in 16 arrests, plus other demonstrations intended as a coordinated campaign to maximize coverage.

"The Canadian work is stronger, more new and a bigger story, so naturally gets and deserves more space," Gulowsen wrote in an e-mail following the interview. "We have a period now where we confront bad fossil fuel developments on a broad scale in many regions, as a global wake-up call ahead of the Copenhagen climate negotations. Sometimes different activities reinforce each others, sometimes they compete."

Two events early this week stood a good chance of getting more coverage - in the journalistic sense, at least - as a Greenpeace released declared "700 people have stripped naked in a vineyard to warn the world of the effects climate change will have on French wine. And a while ago, hundreds of others were prepared to pose nude on a glacier in Switzerland."

Still, Gulowsen said global coverage of the Svalbard event was less important than raising awareness with the Norwegian public and politicians. On that front, it appears results were mixed.

"Most Norwegian people didn't know Store Norske's coal operations are not for domestic self-sufiency," Gulowsen said.

That accuracy of that claim is questionable since coal mining is essentially the sole reason settlements existed in Svalabard for decades and recent headlines have noted Store Norske is eliminating one-fourth of its 400-person workforce because of plummeting prices in the world market. Also, one response to the protest was halting coal exports from Svalbard would actually be counterproductive in terms of pollution.

"Svalbard coal is actually higher energy value and lower phosphorus content than coal from Germany and Poland," wrote one commenter in response to an article by Nettavisen. "This allows smaller contributes to harmful emissions than if the customer were to purchase coal with lower quality."

Greenpeace had some heavyweight ammunition at its disposal, including the overview of pollution at the Svalbard governor's Web site declaring "Norwegian and Russian coal industry and energy production are considered today’s major pollutants and the greatest contributors to climate emissions." Store Norske closed Mine No. 7 in February when large amounts of coal dust polluted the surroundings due to insufficient dust-sucking equipment, with Managing Director Bjørn Arnestad stating officials "concluded that our company cannot appear as the worst polluter on Svalbard." A 2007 study by four authors from Denmark and Sweden concluded vegetation is being damaged by pollutants caused by winter mining that are released when the weather thaws.

But a master thesis presented this year by Borgar Aamaas at The University Centre In Svalbard provides some perspective on the relative impact of black carbon pollution, cited as a key element in Arctic warming. He found the number of particles "was 200 times higher in the areas around Longyearbyen in the spring (of) 2008 than the normal for the rest of the archipelago" due to mining, power generation and vehicles, according to a summary at the UNIS Web site.

"However, all in all, the pollution from settlements in Svalbard is actually insignificant compared to the vastness of the entire Arctic and its wilderness with few or no local BC sources," the summary notes.

One of the most common questions among Longyearbyen residents was how much pollution and fuel usage resulted from Greenpeace's remote trip and subsequent police action. Gulowsen said "that of course is alwys a delimma," but a greater good is achieved by spreading the word that "the ship we blocked contained three times the amount of coal required to run the Longyearbyen coal plant for one year."

A "white paper" issued earlier this year by the Norwegian government contained what many locals said was a crucial finding by declaring coal mining should be allowed to continue in Svalbard, and ending it would cause the archipelago's population to decline 40 percent. The paper also states mining should occur within tight environmental limits and use existing facilities as much as possible, with a continuing effort to diversify the economy since coal is a non-renewable resource that could be depleted as soon as a decade or so.

The controversy about mining isn't over, however, as specifics of that policy are still to be defined by Parliament. Combined with other issues generating controversy such as increased tourism, oil exploration in the Norwegian Arctic and the "doomsday" Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and it's obvious environmentalists will be keeping an eye on the area.

But Ingerø, who returned to the governor's office in September after a four-year interval, said he isn't expecting more protests any time soon.

"I don't think Greenpeace or other persons will come to Svalbard often," he said.

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