Oil minister admits Lofoten defeat

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The seas off scenic Lofoten and Vesterålen in Northern Norway may be saved from oil exploration and drilling, at least for now. After a series of new warnings from researchers and strong opposition from within his own political party, Oil Minister Ola Borten Moe is admitting defeat.

The seas and rich fishing grounds off Lofoten appear to have won a reprieve from the oil minister's efforts to open them up for oil exploration. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The seas and rich fishing grounds off Lofoten appear to have won a reprieve from the oil minister’s efforts to open them up for oil exploration. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Moe has been a proponent of opening up new fields for oil exploration west of one of Norway’s most famously scenic areas, the archipelago of Lofoten that’s also known for its rich fishing grounds. As an oil minister keen to tap into more of Norway’s offshore oil and gas resources to help meet worldwide energy demand, Moe has also wanted to move forward quickly with development of another area just southwest of Lofoten that he claims already is officially open for exploration, called Nordland 6.

But now Moe has understood that his own party, the small, district-friendly Center Party (Senterpartiet, SP) that’s part of Norway’s left-center government coalition, won’t support his position, which also has sparked harsh criticism from the Socialist Left party (SV), another coalition partner. Some factions within the coalition’s dominant Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) have also cringed over Moe’s bullishness on the Lofoten issue. Several of Labour’s local chapters have announced recently that they formally oppose opening up the waters off Lofoten and Vesterålen to exploration and eventual production although Labour itself, generally keen on the jobs oil industry activity can create, hasn’t taken an official position yet.

Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe had never been to China before, until this week. PHOTO: Center Party

Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe admits he has lost his fight to open up Lofoten and Vesterålen for oil activity, at least for now. PHOTO: Center Party

Moe told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday that he now sees he has lost his fight to insert a proposed opening of the contested offshore fields into party’s platform. His defeat follows voting by local chapters of his party in the run-up to their annual national meeting.

“My analysis after the county chapter meetings have ended is that the proposal (for oil exploration off Lofoten) won’t win majority support at the annual meeting,” Moe told NRK. “But now and then you have to take such initiatives without being certain what sort of treatment they’ll get in the party organization.”

The news was likely to cheer his government colleagues in SV, who called for an end to the Lofoten debate earlier this week. After researchers at Norway’s Havforskningsinstituttet declared that 70 percent of all fish caught in the Norwegian and Barents Seas swim through the Lofoten area during critical stages of their lives, the risks of oil exploration seemed even more dramatic.

“The latest information from researchers removes any doubt that opening up these areas to oil activity is much too dangerous,” SV leader Audun Lysbakken told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. The rich fishing grounds of the area were said to be “unique” in the world, with researchers pointing out the extreme concentration of all sorts of fish, not just Lofoten’s famous cod.

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, Moe’s co-deputy leader of the Center Party who also serves as agriculture minister, admitted the party has been split on the issue and he wants to move forward more carefully with the opening of new exploration areas. He thinks Moe went too far in pushing for exploration off Lofoten, which alienated many fishing and tourism lobbies that were frightened by the risk of oil spills and scaring off fish.

“We have enough exploration areas right now,” Vedum told NRK, referring to the vast number of fields that are opening up and attracting broad interest from oil companies worldwide. Several have been reporting huge oil finds as have existing, mature fields that now seem poised to become more productive than ever. The Johan Sverdrup field, for example, was reported earlier this week to have far more oil reserves than even the large amounts previously announced.

Moe, deputy leader of the party that tries to promote a green, pro-environmental profile in addition to championing the interests of rural areas, said he’s not giving up the fight to open up Lofoten’s waters in the future. He did find backing in the leader of the Center Party’s youth group, Sandra Borch, who defied her own membership in supporting oil exploration and production off Lofoten. Moe claims it’s still just a matter of time before the area will be opened up, given demand for oil and gas, and predicts the issue will again be a matter of debate in the next national elections in 2017 and 2021. “So we’ll see what happens then,” Moe said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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