Remote, but no longer terminal

Norwegian authorities are recommending that Kirkenes be the site of a new major Arctic port. Making the most of its location, however, will require repaired relations with Moscow

The end of the road, but for how much longer? (Photo: Janter)

Tore Andre Kjetland Fjeldsbø

Kirkenes, is the end of the line in a lot of respects. It is the terminus for both the E6, a motorway, and Hurtigruten, a shipping line. To the north lies the Barents Sea. To the east, the Russian frontier. No wonder then that most southerners have long considered the town (population 3,500) both remote and without prospects.

But as the Arctic opens up to development, the town may soon become an economic centre for the region. A recent report, published by Kystverket, Norway’s coastal administration, and Vegvesenet, which is responsible for the country’s roads, argues that building a major port in Kirkenes would benefit the development of the Barents region and the Arctic.

Norwegian lawmakers and business have great expectations for the Barents region in the short-term. But, according to the report, making the most of the potential for growth in industries such as oil, fishing, shipping, mine and tourism would require investments in infrastructure in northern Norway.

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As the Arctic ice melts, it will lead to the opening of the Arctic Sea routes, resulting in increased shipping activity on both the Northern Sea Route, north of Russia, and the Northwest Passage, north of Canada. Taking advantage of this will require adequate port facilities, and the report singles out Kirkenes as the best site to build one, firstly for its strategic location on the Barents Sea, and secondly for its proximity to Russia and Finland in the east.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the Barents Sea holds a great deal of natural resources on both the Russian and Norwegian sides. For now, getting those resources out of the ground is unprofitable. Take oil for example: most analysts, as well as a recent report on NRK, a Norwegian public broadcaster, reckon that in order for Barents oil to be profitable, oil must be trading above $60 per barrel. The current price is just below that figure.

A port in Kirkenes could possibly benefit from the higher level of Russian offshore activity in the region. But this, too, may be unlikely in the short term, given the current chill in relations between Oslo and Moscow due both to increased Russian military activity in the Arctic, and Norway’s participation in Western sanctions imposed after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea last year.

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The report, however, is optimistic on both accounts, assuming that the price of oil will stabilise at a profitable level and that co-operation and trade between Norway and Russia will return to normal at some point.

For now, Kirkenes remains remote. But if the report’s assumptions prove correct, its days as the end of the line are numbered.

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