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Social impact assessment important in accessing perceptions of projects

Iceland’s environment ministry has just held a symposium on social impacts of energy projects in Iceland, in particular in relation to new power plants envisaged as part of the 4th Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Key speakers were a couple now living in the Netherlands: an academic from the University of Gröningen, Frank Vanclay, and his practitioner wife, Ana-Maria Esteves, who works with the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

Much of the symposium was related to social environmental assessment itself, irrespective of country. So for instance when a fracking project is announced, there might be impacts from vehicle noise of various types, exhaust fumes, increased accident risk, injury or even death, costs of road repair from increased traffic, and changing character of the town (less peaceful, etc.). These are balanced by the potential for local income from spending by drivers, plus other services for drivers.

Everything is social, Frank said: landscape analysis; archeological and heritage impacts; community, cultural and linguistic impacts; demographic and economic impacts; gender issues; health and psychological impacts; political issues such as human rights; resource issues, and indigenous issues. Social impacts depend on project characteristics, as well as characteristics of the community, individuals and any proposed mitigation. Impacts cannot be measured in advance, but social impacts should be done before environmental impacts. Speculation starts as soon as there is even a rumour of a proposed development, he says. If there is no consensus, projects should not proceed.

As an activist, I found his slide on the different types of protest interesting.

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Ana said that “the purpose of benefit-sharing is to retain part of a project’s economic benefits in the region where the project is located”. These may be voluntary or non-voluntary, monetary or non-monetary. Who decides, who distributes, who benefits? And how do people perceive negative aspects?

The Icelanders who spoke brought up local issues. Birna Björk Árnadóttir from the Planning Agency brought up the case of a proposed hydropower plant, Hvalár, in an isolated region of northwest Iceland where people have been divided into two factions: proponents (mainly locals) who say “this is our project, let us decide” and opponents, who say “to whom do the fjords belong”?

In line with some of what Ana said earlier in the symposium, developers of this project have promised various benefits for the local villagers.

In terms of social impact assessments for power plants, the following should be covered: access to electricity and electrical safety, population changes, land use, employment, property value, fringe benefits and perks, public health, cultural heritage, and tourism and recreation. Employment weighs heavily in the assessments, whereas tourism and recreation are usually the most-researched factors.

In Iceland, social impact assessment has only been carried out with large projects such as construction of the dam and aluminium plant in East Iceland. Given the proximity of the currently non-operating silicon metal smelter in Helguvik, south-west Iceland, to local communities, it would have been better if a social impact assessment had been carried out there first. Stakksberg, the company set up by Arion Bank to see to the amendments and potential sale of the smelter, could still decide to carry out a social impact assessment for the project – but I doubt they will.

 

 

Ban on heavy fuel use in the Arctic edges closer

A ban on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) in the Arctic could be expected in 2022/3, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance which held a seminar in the run-up to Iceland’s annual Arctic Circle Assembly.

A draft methodology for analysing impacts of a ban on HFO for the use and carriage as fuel by ships in Arctic waters was agreed at a February meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEP72) held a meeting in April at which it was decided to move forward on developing an HFO ban in the Arctic. A ban already exists on HFO use in the Antarctic.

Out of eight Arctic states that are pushing for a ban, only Canada and Russia have not yet supported it – though they haven’t opposed it either – but Russia has been making suggestions and Canada wants a study done on the impact of a ban on coastal communities. They basically have not made their position clear.

Nevertheless, an important step will be achieved in January 2020 when sulphur content in fuel will be limited to 0.5%, down from 3.5%. Currently, most vessels use HFO with a sulphur content of 2.7%.

In Iceland, sulphur content of shipping fuel within 12 nautical miles of land must be limited to 0.1% from January 2020. However, HFO will be permitted if scrubbers are used. Anywhere outside of this area comes under the jurisdiction of the IMO. The reduction “will solve some problems but not all”, according to Árni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which organised the seminar.

Currently, 76% of fuel used in the Arctic is HFO. Vessels that spend long periods at a time in the Arctic are especially likely to be using the fuel. Some ships are fitted with scrubbers, which are designed to remove sulphur, but if vessels are using open-loop rather than closed-loop scrubbers – as 80% of boats do – the resulting effluent is also polluting.

Lighter fuel blends are being developed, but as these are mixed on board, HFO will still have to be carried, with the potential of oil spills that are hard to clean in the Arctic.

The Clean Arctic Alliance, a global body consisting of 18 organisations, is pushing for the use of the lighter distillate fuels, which already meet emission requirements for sulphur. When distillates are used, particulate filters could be installed to reduce black carbon emissions by over 90%. The Alliance points out that between 2015 and 2017, there was a 30% increase in the number of HFO-fuelled ships and 50% increase in black carbon emissions from HFO use.

Particulate filters cannot be used with HFO, as HFO contains too much carbon. The warming impact of black carbon in the Arctic is three times higher than over the open ocean.

“The ocean has been absorbing large quantities of emissions, equivalent to 20-30% of CO2 emitted by human activity since the 1980s. We need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” says Dr Sian Prior from the Clean Arctic Alliance..

Most of the area around Svalbard is already subjected to an HFO ban.

This blog was originally written for ENDS Europe.

Iceland’s PCC silicon smelter in search of extra funds

The PCC silicon smelter at Bakki, North Iceland, is asking its owners and other investors, such as pension funds, for up to 5 billion kronur (almost $US 40 million) to provide a firmer base for its operations. The majority of the money is expected to come from the holding company of the PCC Group, PCC SE, which has an 86.5% share in the Bakki smelter. Pension funds currently have a 13.5% share in the silicon smelter. PCC SE already provided extra funds last year in the form of a shareholder loan, totalling $US 34 million.

Although PCC SE proudly states: “In the north of Iceland we have constructed one of the world’s most advanced and most environmentally compatible facilities for silicon metal production which was commissioned in 2018”, it has in fact suffered innumerable problems and has frequently, if not usually, operated at reduced capacity due to various problems.

Just this week, the first furnace had to be switched off due to a leak in the cooling system, which led to melting of part of the electrode (þrýstiklemma in Icelandic).  A new part has to be ordered. Note that the PCC website gives very little information about the plant’s problems.

Besides operating problems, the market price of silicon metal has been decreasing recently.

News of PCC’s financial problems must surely make it harder for Stakksberg to sell the former United Silicon plant in Helguvik, Southwest Iceland.

Update 22 September: They say that they have been running at much lower capacity for the last few weeks, and are only producing about 35 tonnes a day instead of 90. It also turns out that there was a second accident involving a “gun” last month, though this was not reported at the time.

 

 

Nordic push for plastics circularity in electrical and electronic equipment

According to a new report published by the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), emphasis should be put on developing and implementing circular design principles into electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) as 80% of environmental pollution and 90% of manufacturing costs are the result of decisions made at the product design stage.

Using recycled plastic in an electrical/electronic product could reduce the environmental impact of a single product by over 20%, they say, while up to 50% of the 1.2 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) plastics in the EU could be recycled instead of the current 20%. If all WEEE plastics in Europe were recycled, estimated CO2 emission reductions would account for over 2.5 million tonnes per year.

The authors suggest targets for circular electrical and electronic equipment (CEEE) akin to those in the EU plastics strategy, which stipulates 50% recycled plastic content in packaging material by 2025 and 55% by 2030.

Sector-wide circular design principles can be achieved by setting up a roundtable that brings companies and value-chain actors together, whereby both parties could learn from each other. The authors point out that incorrect markings on plastics have resulted in a situation where recyclers do not trust the markings on plastics, which means that different types of plastics are not separated even when technologically possible.

They say that ultimately, the goal should be to design and set up a system that enables circulation, i.e. taking products back and reprocessing material back to the same product over and over again. At the moment, the focus is on recycling valuable metals, “but as the world is moving towards circularity and the amount of EEE is growing fast, plastics need to be used in a more circular fashion”.

In terms of legislation, requirements for using recycled content would speed up the market transition towards circularity. Requirements for circular design principles – especially reparability, upgradability, modularity and ease of disassembly (RUMED) – could be first encouraged in the form of sector-wide principles and gradually formulated into requirements. Removing existing barriers, such as transporting e-waste across borders within the EU, is equally important.

Note that I originally wrote this up for ENDS Europe Daily, but articles there can only be accessed by subscribers.

Are Iceland’s aluminium smelters in trouble?

Aluminium companies in Iceland have not been doing too well recently. The original smelter just outside the capital at Straumsvik, which was opened 50 years ago and is now owned by multinational Rio Tinto but is up for sale, had an “incident” 10 days ago when an arc flash formed within one of its pots. Luckily, it happened at a time when no one was present in the room, as otherwise it could have been fatal.

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For safety reasons, all of the 160 pots in that pot room have been switched off – this represents about a third of the smelter’s production and represents a serious dent in the company’s operations. Last year, the company made a loss of about $US 41.3 million, so this setback doesn’t help – and won’t make the smelter easier to sell either.

Don’t bother looking for information about the incident on the company’s Facebook page or their website, as it isn’t there!

What has sparked my curiosity is that both the CEO of  East Iceland Fjardaal aluminium smelter, Magnus Thor Guðmundsson, and the Icelandic Senior Vice-President of Alcoa globally, Tomas Mar Sigurdsson, have announced their resignations very recently. Tomas Mar started off at the Icelandic plant before becoming involved with Alcoa Europe. He only became Senior Vice-President in November last year – not long ago.

Magnus Thor has been in various positions of responsibility within the East Iceland plant.

So is it coincidence that both decided to leave at a similar time? Well, the mother company’s finances have not been good. In the first quarter of 2019, Alcoa corporation announced a loss of $US 199 million while the second quarter loss was $US 402 million. So possibly they sensed that something was coming.

Alcoa, however, always add a paragraph about “forward-looking statements” to their annual reports, which presumably prevents them from being sued. This term seems to be American in origin but I suspect can be used in a variety of industries. Check out this explanation that they give:

Forward-looking statements include those containing such words as “anticipates,” “believes,” “could,” “estimates,” “expects,” “forecasts,” “goal,” “intends,” “may,” “outlook,” “plans,” “projects,” “seeks,” “sees,” “should,” “targets,” “will,” “would,” or other words of similar meaning.

This concept is interesting in itself and can surely be applied to many companies who want to be somewhat ambiguous in their intentions.

The third aluminium company, Nordural, is owned by Century Aluminium and located at Grundartangi in West Iceland. Unlike the other smelters, this plant was operated with a profit of just over $US 94 million, though profits were down on the previous year by nearly $US 25 million.

Heavy industry in Iceland accounts for 82-83% all electricity produced. The Fjardaal smelter is the biggest user, and is responsible for 34% of the country’s electricity usage (and pays the lowest cost for it of all three smelters). Rio Tinto is responsible for 23% of electricity used and the Nordural plant uses 12%. Other heavy industry accounts for the rest.

 

Is the U.S. military on its way back to Iceland?

The U.S. military left their military base in Iceland in September 2006. With that, the last vestiges of a military presence in Iceland disappeared, as Iceland does not have an army of its own.

But since 2016 (if not before) the American military has surreptitiously been carrying out various activities in the security zone of the former base, including submarine surveillance. And that same year, the U.S. military asked the State Treasury for more finance for submarine monitoring and other projects.

More details have emerged from time to time about this funding, and I wrote about it in an article and a blog. At the same time, there has been daily military presence at the former base.

Now it has emerged (Icelanders can read about it here) that the U.S. military want to set up basic facilities for about 1000 military personnel in the security zone, along with a zone with appropriate facilities where planes carrying “dangerous goods”, such as bombs and fuel, could land.

Why? It sounds very suspicious to me.

A friend in the U.S. warned me last year that Iceland would have to be careful that the U.S. did not start using the situation for “quiet back-room deals”

In 2016 I published an article that indicated, amongst other things, renewed military presence in Iceland.

Here is part of what I wrote:

… earlier this year (2016), the U.S. requested the use of a hangar for submarine monitoring, so they could fly over the sea and detect submarines using sonar.

Then in June the U.S. Department of Defense met with the Icelandic Foreign Affairs Minister, Lilja Alfredsdottir, about wanting to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. military once more, because the security situation had changed since 2006.

Then in July 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report in which they openly suggest: “NATO can optimize its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] posture to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right places at the right time by reopening Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland and encouraging Norway to reclaim and reopen its submarine support facility at Olavsvern.”

The same article also details various activities related to the NATO agreement which are permitted.

Note that the CSIS link no longer works, and that Lilja Alfredsdottir is now Education Minister; Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson is now the Foreign Affairs Minister. I don’t know anything about Olavsvern, though I just found this article which again is based on the CSIS report.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Left-Green Prime Minister whose party is opposed to NATO and military operations in general, says that the decisions were made before she became PM and she cannot do anything about it.

Nevertheless, many people are unhappy about the situation.

 

 

 

Weapons carrier wants to fly budget flights from Iceland

Two prospective new airlines have surfaced over the last few days in Iceland, which both intend to pick up the pieces from the now-defunct WOW Air and offer low-cost flights from Iceland to Europe and the US.

The first to be announced has the tentative working name of WAB – We are Back – and intends to fly to 14 US and European cities. Two ex-WOW executives are involved, and funding is mostly being provided by an Irish investment fund, Avianta Capital, which is owned by the daughter of one of the owners of Ryan Air, Aislinn Whittley-Ryan. You can read more about it here.

Then last night it was announced that a US company had bought most of what’s left of WOW Air, and had also requested to use the hangars previously used for WOW planes. Initially the name of the company was not revealed, but now it turns out that the company is probably Oasis Aviation Services. Like WAB, the idea is to run a low-cost airline.

Oasis specializes in transporting weapons from the US to Africa through its hub in Djibouti. Not nice! Their website calls it “Internationalist Air Cargo – Specialist in US Military Cargo”.

Oasis is owned by Michele Ballarin, a wealthy woman with links to Somalia who is also known there as Amira Ballarin, meaning Princess Ballarin. Besides breeding Lippizaner horses there, she has also been involved in many other activities, to various degrees of legality. You can read about her activities here.

Since WOW stopped flying at the end of March, tourist numbers have dropped dramatically – which is not surprising, as most people would have booked their summer holidays by then and those who had booked flights to Iceland with WOW would have had to rebook with another airline. With limited seat availability compared to the number who wanted to come, flight prices increased phenomenally and no doubt became out of reach for the average traveller. Tourist operators are worried.

Whether both airlines will eventually be flying to and from Iceland remains to be seen – I personally doubt that the market can support both of them  – but I would much prefer WAB to the Oasis lot.

Update 7 September: It was announced yesterday that Ballarin’s lot will start flying from October to the USA (Washington Dulles airport), under the trade name WOW. Later they will fly to other cities.

Update 5 November: Well, forget the September update. Flying to the US will start next year but they will start flying to six European cities this month. They had a press conference this morning and are calling the new airline Play . Their website (which is primitive at the moment) is here.