© Ólafur Már Björnsson

In Iceland, young environmentalists’ pleas are falling on deaf ears

31 March 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Youth in Action. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Controversial plans to build the Hvalárvirkjun power plant in Iceland’s West Fjords—a large peninsula in the country’s remote northwest—have alarmed youth activists. The plans involve damming three different rivers near the municipality of Árneshreppur to produce 55 megawatts of power. Þorgerður María Þorbjarnardóttir is worried the project will destroy unique wilderness areas irreversibly. She objects to her generation having no say in the matter while the municipality’s population of 43 (and others who stand to profit) make all the decisions.

Iceland is often portrayed as a green energy paradise where all electricity comes from renewable sources. What is less known is that the electricity is produced largely by hydropower plants that submerge vast wilderness areas, destroying them for future generations— or that 77 per cent of the electricity produced goes to heavy industry.

In Icelandic law, there is a Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Developed after years of debate, this plan aims to reconcile the competing interests of nature conservation and energy utilisation by assessing whether power plant proposals should be refused, put on hold, or go ahead. Those slated to go ahead must still undergo environmental impact assessments. A company seeking to build a plant must arrange the assessments and pitch the project to the local municipal government. At that point, members of the public can submit comments and the municipality is required to answer them. Nevertheless, the municipality alone makes the final decision.

This dynamic can fuel confrontations between those whose main interest is keeping rural populations steady and those who favour protecting the environment. I know this from my own experience. I am from Fljótsdalshérað in the east of Iceland, where the country’s largest power plant (Kárahnúkavirkjun) was built in 2009. The dam swiftly split the community into two groups: jobs versus the environment, humans versus nature.

Needless to say, it is never quite as simple as that. It is possible to care about employment and safety in rural communities while also wanting to protect wilderness areas.

Many small towns in Iceland struggle to keep people from moving to Reykjavík—and while power plants do not generally provide many jobs once they are up and running, their construction can bring much-needed funding into municipalities. Towns that permit construction stand to gain financially.

As a young person who has seen 925 square kilometres of local wilderness traded for 690 megawatts, I don’t want history to repeat itself by damaging 226 more square kilometres for another 55 megawatts. The area under threat is home to glacial and freshwater rivers, rocky terrain, and lakes and ponds that are unique in Iceland, not to mention one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls.

Even though my generation will be affected the most if this project goes ahead, it has been a struggle to have our voices heard at all.

In the case of Hvalárvirkjun, assessments still need to be done before construction can begin. But since the area is remote and difficult to access, the contractor, VesturVerk (owned by power company HS Orka), has already begun building roads so heavy machinery can reach the reservoir sites. This is supposedly being done in the name of research. However, to minimize environmental impact, it is possible to move research equipment on snow during winter for use in the summer or to fly it there by helicopter. So it seems obvious that the roads are the start of construction. In response, several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit.

Numerous reports have advised against building this power plant, including one from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History has proposed that a 1,435 square kilometre area be protected, including all the land at stake. Considering this criticism, who is really in charge of the decision? Follow the money: Jarðvarmi slhf, a company owned by 14 Icelandic pension funds, has a 50 per cent stake in HS Orka; the other half is owned by Magma Energy Sweden A.B., in turn owned by London-based Ancala Partners.

The exclusion of youth from this decision is extremely discouraging. The Young Environmentalist Association in Iceland has submitted numerous comments and questions, but its members are powerless to make a real impact.

The power project endangers irreplaceable natural resources in Iceland, including precious rivers and lakes. It will be a shame if they become nothing but a memory.

ÞORGERÐUR MARÍA ÞORBJARNARDÓTTIR, a guest writer for this issue, is a geologist who has been volunteering with Iceland’s Young Environmentalist Association for the past year. Her goal is to protect Iceland’s unique wilderness so future generations can enjoy its biological and geological diversity.