A weekend of hefty internal debate among delegates to the ruling Labour Party’s national meeting in Oslo ended with a majority going along with the party leadership’s plans to actively consider oil exploration and drilling off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja. The party’s youth organization AUF vowed to continue the fight against oil activity off the scenic northern areas that also contain rich fishing grounds, while Labour’s government partners were voicing battle plans of their own.
Oil companies eager to exploit the resources believed to lie offshore from Nordland and Troms counties can’t expect to start drilling any time soon, but their prospects improved considerably over the weekend. Labour’s decision to proceed with a formal study of the consequences of oil drilling off Lofoten (called a konsekvensutredning) is expected to ultimately open up the area despite a compromise hammered out among the arguing factions.
The oil issue off Lofoten was the single most divisive factor facing Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as he otherwise tried to rally his troops for their upcoming re-election campaign. While Stoltenberg remains popular and was re-elected as party leader with no opposition, his willingness to even consider opening up the waters off some of Norway’s most scenic coastal areas to oil exploration sparked deep dissent.
He basically won in the end, although the compromise that was approved provides for another vote and thus more heated debate at the next Labour Party national meeting in two years. AUF conceded defeat on their efforts to block the study now, but were pleased they’ll have another chance to prevent actual drilling and are already gearing for another debate.
So were the leaders of Labour’s partners in Norway’s current left-center government coalition, the Socialist Left party (SV) and the Center Party (Sp). Both SV leader Audun Lysbakken and Sp’s Liv Signe Navarsete claim they’ll fight to keep the waters off Lofoten oil-free. They even think the issue may strengthen their currently poor standings among voters, by attracting support from environmentally conscious Norwegians and Norway’s important seafood industry, the country’s largest after oil. They also intend to drum up support from grass roots organizations that opposed the Labour leaders’ position and from state church officials who also want to protect the waters from Lofoten north to Senja, and don’t believe their oil and gas prospects are needed given major discoveries in Norwegian territory elsewhere in recent years.
Trade Minister Trond Giske, who disappointed AUF members by voting in favor of the compromise, denied it amounted to merely a postponement of oil drilling and predicts another lively debate within the party in 2015. It remains unclear whether Labour and its left-center partners will still hold government power by then, with the non-socialist opposition currently leading public opinion polls. Both the Conservative and Progress parties and likely to open up for both oil exploration and production off Lofoten if they win the September election, but both Giske and environmental organizations stressed that opposition remains strong and may get stronger as the prospect approaches.
More cracks in the coalition
While Stoltenberg now needs to face disagreement within the government coalition he leads, more cracks in his coalition continued to emerge. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported over the weekend that Stoltenberg himself was so upset last fall and winter over his partners’ dissent on the issue of trade with the EU, for example, that Labour officials considered disbanding the coalition and heading into this year’s election campaign alone, with the Conservative Party (Høyre) as its main opponent. Polls indicate that Labour has lost the most voters to the Conservatives, and its strategy of cooperating with the left-wing SV and the protectionist Sp can hurt the chances of winning them back.
Stoltenberg ultimately prevailed in his EU trade position and the coalition disbanding effort was said to have fizzled out, with DN reporting that it’s now “too late” for Labour to change its campaign strategy. There was a noticeable lack of references by Stoltenberg to his left-center, so-called “red-green” partners during the weekend meeting, though, and neither Lybakken nor Navarsete were invited to address the gathering.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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