(CS Monitor 12/30/15) SPRENGISANDUR is an ancient unpaved road veering across the rugged, volcano-strewn central highlands of Iceland. Twelve centuries ago, the 125 mile-long windswept pass, whose name derives from sprengya, the Icelandic verb for riding a horse to its death, was one of the routes by which Icelanders made the long trek to Althing, the midsummer parliament.
Today, the scenic road, now the site of tourist caravans, is at the nexus of two disparate agendas which have emerged on the fast-changing island, as it continues to recover from the great Icelandic crash of 2008.
On the one hand, the development-friendly center-right government and Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, appear anxious to lay the groundwork for the importation of additional industry, requiring the strengthening of Iceland’s already overloaded energy grid– hence the need for the proposed power line—while making Iceland an energy exporter.
On the other hand, the surging environmentalist movement led by Bjork, the quixotic “queen of Icelandic music,” wishes to halt this trend, which has already seen the construction of four heavy metal factories around Iceland, and turn the highlands, one of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas into a national park.
“Iceland currently has the largest untouched area of nature in Europe,” said Bjork at a packed press conference in Reykjavik in early November. “The government has plans to build over 50 dams and power plants,” the alarmed musician said, referring to the number of possible sites considered under the multi-phase energy Masterplan drawn up by Landsvirkjun and approved by Parliament (www.rammaaaetlun.is).
In addition to the proposed power line at Sprengisandur, green-minded Icelanders were also alarmed by the new joint task force which British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in October along with his Icelandic counterpart, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the stated purpose of which is to explore the possibility of building a future undersea cable linking Iceland and Britain.
The so-called Icelink, which theoretically would ultimately supply 10 percent of Britain’s electricity needs, was enthusiastically received in energy-parched Britain, if considerably less so in Iceland, especially by preservationists, who see both the overhead power voltage line at Sprengisandur and the envisioned undersea link to Scotland—as harbingers of the same environmental doom.
“The Sprengisandur overhead power line is being proposed independent of the sea cable to Scotland,” concedes Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, managing director of the Icelandic Environment Association “However if the sea cable would be constructed, the Sprengisandur power line would need to be strengthened.” That is why, Gudbrandsson says, he and his allies have decided to draw the line at Sprengisandur. Otherwise, government and industry will sprengya the wild horse of Iceland’s natural beauty to its death.
A considerable number of Icelanders appear to agree. According to a new Gallup poll, 60 per cent of respondents support the idea of a highlands park, an increase from 2011, with only 12.5 p opposed. Meanwhile, over 40,000 Icelanders, or 15 percent of the island nation’s population, have affixed their signatures to an IEA-sponsored petition to create the park.
The one thing which preservationists don’t want to see is more heavy metal factories like the giant Alcoa smelter at Karahnjukar, in the east of the country, for which several large rivers were diverted and a large reservoir covering a twenty square mile area was created.
For its part, the government contends that the preservationists’ concerns are, at the very least premature.
“First, nothing has been decided by the government as [Bjork] claimed, Elin Arnadottir, the Minister of Industries and Commerce told the Monitor. “Second, the government has no plans to build 50 dams as was stated.”
Ms. Arnodottir points out that the proposed power line must first undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before it proceeds any further and that the government is not trying to push the project “down the throat of the country,” as Andri Magnason, the noted Icelandic writer, who appeared at the same November 6th press conference with Bjork, charged.
“Iceland is a democracy which adheres to rules and regulations,” Arnodottir emphasizes.
As far as the so-called Icelink is concerned, Ms. Arnodottir struck a cautious note, noting that “certain aspects of this matter [have to be analyzed] before a decision [can] be made on whether to embark upon such a project or not,” remarks echoed by ministry spokesman Thorir Hrafnsson, who insists that the “the matter [of the cable] is currently being investigated in an overall cost-benefit analysis.”
The minister was more voluble about the interconnector, as well as her desire for Iceland to become an energy exporter in an interview she gave to The Reports. Company late month. “Experts now say that it [the cable] is technologically possible,” she enthused. “It would be the longest undersea cable ever built, and this is the North Atlantic we are talking about so it is every engineer’s dream.”
Given the above, it is perhaps easier to understand why, the government’s protestations notwithstanding, some believe that the government is secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, pushing its own agenda, as well as why the green camp has decided to press its anti-energy-expansion agenda now.
“We can’t afford to wait and see. That’s what we did at Karahnjukar,” says Magnason. “Look what happened—it’s a mess.”
“They,” are confused about the issues,” said Oli Gretar Blondal Sveinsson, executive vice president of Landsvirkjun, in an interview at the power company’s headquarters on the outskirts of the Icelandic capital, referring to Bjork, Magnason and their friends.
Still, the sometimes opaque language of the company’s Masterplan, which divides power plant options into three categories—“utilization,” “on hold,” and “protection” doesn’t help its case. Although there are only several plants in the “utilization” category, and none in the highlands area, there are almost fifty power plant options, including several bordering the highlands in the equally fuzzy “on hold” category.
For their part, the preservationists are not confused about what they feel is at stake. “I think that everyone understands and want to encourage the use of renewable resources,” says IEA’s Gudbrandsson, who points to the fact that heavy industry now absorbs 77 per cent of Iceland’s primary energy. “In the Icelandic context that has already been done to a great extent, not only for Icelanders, but to fuel multinational companies.”
“This means that a lot of beauty has been taken away from Iceland,” he says. “We simply believe that we can’t lose anymore and that this is a good time to stop.”
To be sure, not all Icelanders agree with the Bjork-IEA agenda. “There is a romanticized view that the interior is like the heart of the country and the core of our identity,” says Egill Helgason, a noted journalist and former talk show host. “This is actually quite a recent phenomenon. Previously most Icelanders would have said that language and literature were our cultural mainstays.”
In response, the environmentalists say, the case against further expansion of Iceland’s energy industry is not entirely romantic. Further damming or digging, they say, will inevitably hurt Iceland’s booming tourist industry, which has made the island’s “unspoiled beauty” its principal selling point. Over a million tourists visited Iceland in 2014, drawn by images of the country’s “pure” environment, while making tourism the country’s principal source of revenue
“I realize that a lot of people think that Iceland is ‘pure.’”, he says. Perhaps so, but not for much longer, he contends, if Landsvirkjun has its way.
Or, as Andri Magnason puts it, “Who will want to come to Iceland if only a fraction of the plant options in the Masterplan are realized?”