On Europe's northern edge

by Doris Wöhncke

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Snow-covered mountains rising out of a grey-bluish sea, a late winter sun tinting the landscape a delicate pink and migratory birds returning home. Hammerfest offers a view across the untouched Artic. But something resembling a spaceship, with many pipes, cold steel and steam, lies on a small island in front of Hammerfest. It is Europe's largest natural gas storage and processing plant. Melkøya, or the milk island lies some 200 metres away from the city. Since 2007, the island has housed the gas plant that has become a household name in Norway. Up to a hundred metres above it blaze gas flames that signal a new era in Hammerfest. During the "dark time", as the long, merciless winter is called here, they can illuminate the whole sky.

Hammerfest, a small town in the far northwest of Norway, has a turbulent history: In the 19th century it became famous for the sailors and explorers who left from its harbour to conquer the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Hammerfest grew fast with men and women from all over the world coming to work at its fisheries. The upswing came to an abrupt end in the Second World War when the Germans completely destroyed northern Norway. But the population soon rebuilt their homeland and returned to seafaring. The 1950s marked a new high point for the city: The Findus company opened a fish factory and once again there was work for everyone at the harbour.

The industrialisation of fishing triggered a big wave of migration from Finland. In the 1970s many Tamils followed. Some stayed, some eventually returned home. Alvin Vaséli, head of the immigrant headquarters, explains the trend: "This was a tradition, and people were accustomed to both arriving and departing...The rumour that there was work in Norway went around the world." But the factory was bought by Nestlé and the group opted for cheaper production in China in 2001. The end of the fish factory would probably also have marked the end of the town if a new player hadn't moved in: the Norwegian energy giant Statoil.

Fossil fuels have played a big role in Norway since the 1980s, making the country one of the richest countries in the world. Hammerfest has a big share of the business in fossil fuels. Some 140 kilometres north-west of the city of Gasfeld Snøhvit, meaning snow white, in the artic in the arctic Barents Sea. Natural gas is transported through a pipeline to Melkøya where it is processed into liquefied gas. In Hammerfest everything revolves around that small island with a large plant. It is here that most jobs are located, where economic growth adds a buzz to the city. Every year, between seventy and one hundred gas tankers dock at the facility to refuel and ship approximately five million tonnes of liquid gas around the world. One single boat could supply Hammerfest with energy for six years.

"It's a massive bomb, sitting right in the middle of the city," says Jan Ekeland, head of the Green Party in Hammerfest, referring to the island, which is almost completely covered by the plant and the stench it emits. "It poses an unpredictable risk to us all," he repeats over and over again.

"We, the normal citizens, pay the price for the millions that the big companies are generating." Melkøya has already been dubbed as Norway's biggest terror target and an accident at the plant would also be highly dangerous. But that is not up for discussion in Hammerfest. Also, people don't tend to point out that seals don't come to the port any more or that fewer whales swim through the sound. Marine life is damaged by the constantly rising stream of ships, the pipes and tubes which snake across the sea floor and the contant repairs which need to be carried out. Emissions also end up in the atmosphere: The gas plant pumps out as much CO2 as all the cars in Oslo produce in the same timeframe. "Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean that it isn't happening," said Ekeland. He is angry and disappointed that politics doesn't do enough to protect the environment. "We aren't going to leave much positive stuff behind for the next generation." In his opinion the politicians are far too cozy with the big companies.

But those big firms pay taxes. The gas plant on Melkøya alone contributes 150 million Norwegian crowns (15.7 million euros) to Hammerfest every year. That pays for childcare, old people's homes, music schools and public transport. "We would be lost without the tax income from Melkøya," the town hall is repeatedly cited as saying. And it is probably right. Afterall, Hammerfest is the only city in Norway which bucks a negative trend. "Other cities and communities in the north have registered a population reduction of more than 50 percent since 2002. "We, on the other hand, are growing," says Marianne Sivertsen-Næss, the acting mayor of Hammerfest. "We want to make the city more attractive for people moving here. That involves infrastructure and social provision. We want young families to settle here and to be guaranteed that they have nursery places for their children, with no waiting list". With around 10,000 inhabitants, Hammerfest has more than 13 nurseries and every year a new class needs to be created in the first grade of the primary school. "As far as I'm concerned, that can continue in the future," said the politician.

This growth is too fast for the city to manage on its own. People from across the world come to Hammerfest to find a job. More than 70 different nationalities already live in the area, especially from Eastern Europe and Somalia. The settlement welcomes migrants with open arms and has also taken in many Syrian refugees. They are offered a two-year integration course on language and the culture. Many institutions help in this process. To help the newcomers get a foothold in the working world, many firms offer work experience and there is also a coffee shop, run by the immigrants. "We have a high success rate with migration: Most immigrants are established in a career after four years and can provide for their families," says acting mayor Sivertsen-Næss.

And its global character is obvious to any visitor to Hammerfest: Polish is often spoken in the fish factories and a majority of the doctors are Swedish or Danish. In the new cultural center, there are international markets, and every Friday the Muslim community gathers in a redesigned community centre which is north-Norway's biggest mosque.

For centuries, people from across the country move to Hammerfest. But would this be possible without the burgeoning natural gas income? "Our society, our wealth, it is all built on fossil fuel" says Sivertsen-Næss.

And opinion is split on whether or not there is a feasible alternative or whether the fishing industry could partly replace lost natural gas income. But there is one point everyone agrees on: Without oil and gas, Hammerfest wouldn't be what it is today. 

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