Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for September, 2013

Iceland’s environment minister evidently does not care about the environment

Since the end of May, when he started to cover the post of environment minister in Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has aroused the anger of environmentalists time after time. First he moves some proposed power plants from a “pending – more research needed” category to “exploitable”,  then he says he’s of the view that the environment ministry should be dismantled, then he calls off at the last minute the signing of a bill to ensure the preservation of the Þjórsá area in South Iceland, then he says he does not disagree with a new design of a hydroelectric diversion in the Þjórsá river that most people thought was no longer on the drawing board due to its environmental ramifications, and now he says he wants to revoke the extremely comprehensive bill on conservation that was passed in the closing hours of the previous Althing session as some people are unhappy about it. That might be true, as it’s the 4WD association that have complained the most and the law will prohibit them driving off-road. But that is also the purpose of the law.

The above law was meant to enter into force next year – the old one is currently in force – and he wants to put a new law forward next spring.

The prime minister said a few weeks ago that another minister will be appointed “soon”. Many people presumed this would be an environment and resources minister, which would mean that Gunnlaugsson will no longer deal with environmental matters and will stick to fisheries and agriculture (he’s a veterinarian by training). As Árni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association puts it: “Nothing will surprise me. He has a devilish attitude to the environment”.

But nothing more has been said about the new minister. So it seems that we’re stuck with Gunnlaugsson for the time being.

Electricity prices, heavy industry and Iceland’s proposed subsea cable

A report was released yesterday by an Icelandic consultancy, Gamma, about the effect of a subsea cable from Iceland to Europe on electricity prices to domestic consumers. Unlike other countries, only 5% of Iceland’s electricity goes to domestic consumers because so much district heating is provided by geothermal heat. A small proportion of Icelanders have to heat their houses with electricity, and their electricity costs are about seven times higher than that of most people. These people will face a significant increase in electricity prices, but Gamma says that it would be easy to provide subsidies for these people.
About 80% of electricity goes to aluminium companies and other heavy industry. Obviously if domestic consumers pay more for their electricity as a result of the cable, the same should be true for aluminium companies and the like. Which, in view of the low price of aluminium at the moment, might cause some headaches for the aluminium companies in Iceland.

Oil, gas, electricity and aluminium

While virtually everyone else in the world is looking to find alternative energy sources to oil and gas, Iceland’s PM, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, has said that he doesn’t believe that alternative energy sources will fuel or power the world, and that Iceland should start seriously looking for oil and gas reserves. Up till now, Iceland has prided itself on using virtually only renewable energy sources for its electricity and domestic heating services, and has pondered the possibility of building a subsea energy cable to Europe – which will also use renewable energy.

In my opinion, the PM is taking Iceland 10 steps backwards, not forwards.

Of all the electricity produced in Iceland, 80% is used by aluminium companies and over heavy industry which take advantage of the cheap energy produced and sold by Landsvirkjun, the national power company. Indeed, Landsvirkjun’s CEO said a few days ago that the price that aluminium companies paid for electricity was still much lower than these companies had to pay elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the price of electricity is no longer linked to the world price of aluminium. And as the world price for aluminium continues to be at an all-time low, life is difficult for the aluminium companies. The other day, Rannveig Rist, CEO of the Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Straumsvik, just outside of Reykjavik, was complaining about the electricity price no longer being linked to that of aluminium; she said that this is still the case elsewhere. But it the electricity price is low, what does it matter if the price is linked to aluminium or not? I think she’s moaning….

The RTA plant is in fact in financial difficulties and made a loss last year. They have had to pay more for necessary resources such as alumina, plus their planned production increase never happened because the technology didn’t live up to expectations and was abandoned. And they have also had to lay off workers.

Be aware that Iceland’s current government was keenly trying to encourage companies to build smelters here when they were in power before, and Century Aluminium’s Helguvik plant is still very much in the beginning stages, despite supposedly starting operation in 2010. Given the problems at the Straumsvik plant and the fact that Century closed down two aluminium smelters elsewhere not so long ago, one wonders why Century is still pressing for the aluminium plant to be built. In a financial report by Moodys I saw a few months ago, they said that they were going to build the Icelandic plant because of the low energy prices here. Except of course there isn’t enough energy easily available (and that Icelanders will agree to being developed) and at the price that Century wants to pay.  Given the low price of aluminium, one wonders why Century doesn’t decide to abandon the whole project.

Mercury and other health hazards from whale meat

Some Icelanders from Rif, a hamlet on the Snæfellsnes peninsula of Iceland, took advantage of a large number of stranded pilot whales last weekend and cut meat from the whales for themselves. There was subsequently some debate about the merits of this, as pilot whale meat is high in mercury and pollutants and is not good for pregnant women or people with underlying diseases.  Plus it was not totally certain whether all of the whales were in fact dead as apparently it’s hard to tell sometimes – they sometimes take only one breath a minute. And if they weren’t all dead, they probably weren’t killed in the correct way, as there are regulations on how to do this with stranded whales but no vets were informed about the stranding.

It would be interesting to know how healthy whale meat is as a whole in terms of mercury and persistent organic pollutants. I’ve just found an old article from 2003 from Scientific American on mercury in whale meat sold in Japan, and it says that there are (or at least were) dangerously high levels of mercury in some of the meat sold there, particularly from killer whales and striped dolphins, and that it’s a problem Japan should think about.

Another article from the Daily Beast covers mercury in whale meat in detail and says that the City Hall of Ishinomaki – an area that was particularly affected by the tsunami – sold raw whale meat to Oshika County. But look what happened next:

In 2010, the city sold raw whale meat directly to the people of Oshika County; 160 people got food poisoning and the city had to pay them a total of nearly 4 million yen in damages. In May of 2011, when the Japan  Small-Type Whaling Association (Tokyo) sent over 280 kilos of raw whale meat to the shelters at Ishinomaki, the city refused the shipment, citing concerns of food poisoning.

Oh dear. The article doesn’t say from what country the whale meat originated, or what sort of whale meat it was, but it raises questions.

A paper called Toxic Menu – Contamination of Whale Meat and Human Health details pollutants in whale meat. It says that while meat from baleen whales (including fin whales and minke whales) should not pose health risks  as they tend to eat organisms lower down the food chain, this is not always the case. For some reason, meat from minke whales caught in the North Pacific had much higher levels of mercury than minke whales caught in the Antarctic.

In Iceland, the Association of Minke Whale Hunters has had their whale meat tested and says the mercury levels are well within limits. Yet the Environment Agency in Iceland in 2003 advised pregnant and breast-feeding women not to eat meat from minke whales more than twice a week.

Minke whales are opportunistic feeders. That means that they eat what’s available (within limits). I suspect that is one of the reasons for differences in contamination levels.

Enough for now. But check out the links to publications, as the information in them is fascinating. And keep away from whale meat!

Inclement weather might save 20 fin whales – updated

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Caption: The first fin whale caught in 2013 in Iceland

So far this year, 121 fin whales have been caught off Iceland. But, with 33 whales left to catch from the quota of 154, the days are closing in and the weather is worsening.  A decision will be taken next week as to whether whaling will continue or not.

In 2010, 148 fin whales were caught. Fin whales were not hunted in 2011 or 2012 because of problems within the Japanese market – though the “problems” differed according to whether one talked to Kristján Loftsson from the whaling company Hvalur hf or with Japanese conservation groups.

Meanwhile, minke whale hunting has not gone well this year. The quota is 229 minke whales. The whalers say that they need to catch over 50 whales to supply Icelandic supermarkets and restaurants, and hoped to catch over 40 whales this year, but have had to make do with 36 – partly because for some of the summer they were not allowed to hunt in Faxaflói bay, a key hunting area for minke whales. Last year they caught 58 in total. To begin with, the Association of Minke Whale Hunters intended to sell minke whale meat overseas too, but nothing came of that.

Check out my blog on mercury and other contaminants in whale meat, above this blog. Watch this space.