StatoilHydro forced into embarrassing retreat

Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro tried to pressure Lithuanian authorities into reversing their new ban on nighttime sales of alcoholic beverages in gasoline stations. Its effort wasn’t well-received either in Lithuania or at home in Norway, known for its own tough restrictions on alcohol sales. StatoilHydro had to apologize and drop the effort immediately.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv revealed StatoilHydro’s lobbying effort by publishing excerpts of a letter sent by StatoilHydro’s director general in Lithuania, Morten Christensen, to Lithuania’s government. In the letter, Christensen threatened massive layoffs at StatoilHydro stations all over the country unless the ban on alcohol sales was lifted. He was supported by his boss, Jørn Madsen.

Lithuania’s government invoked the ban in January to try to deal with a sharp rise in drunk driving, highway deaths and alcoholic consumption. The Norwegian government, which controls 67 percent of StatoilHydro, has long had a ban on alcohol sales in gas stations, while sales of alcoholic beverages in general are strictly controlled.

While StatoilHydro has had to accept the ban at home, it didn’t seem to think it should accept it in Lithuania. Its sales fell 43 percent after the Lithuanian ban was invoked and it thus asked the local authorities “to reconsider the ban soonest.”

StatoilHydro, which had asked that its letter be kept confidential, had to back down immediately after Dagens Næringsliv reported on it. Norwegian politicians reacted angrily, calling StatoilHydro’s effort to revoke the ban “ethically troublesome” if not downright hypocritical.

“The letter should never have been sent,” admitted StatoilHydro spokesman Ola Morten Aanestad to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It isn’t our role to influence alcohol policies in other countries.”

He said StatoilHydro will now contact Lithuanian authorities “to let them know that it wasn’t our intention to offer advice or arguments aimed at limiting policies based on social or health issues.”