Lofoten fends off the oil industry

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The battle that’s raged for years over oil exploration and production off Norway’s scenic northern coastline reached what key players called a “turning point” during the weekend. Now it looks like opposition to oil activity from Lofoten north to Senja is strong enough to prevent the state from spending more time and money on an official report about oil’s consequences.

Such reports, carried out at the national level and called a konsekvensutredning, often usher in whatever is up for discussion. In the Lofoten case, environmentalists and others have fought hard to ward off approval of such a report, while proponents claim it would provide valuable information about the economic and environmental impact of oil industry development.

Every municipality on Lofoten, including here at Svolvær, has now voted against developing oil fields offshore. Two of Norway's three northern chapters of the Labour Party did the same over the weekend. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Every municipality on Lofoten, including here at Svolvær, has now voted against developing oil fields offshore. Two of Norway’s three northern chapters of the Labour Party did the same over the weekend. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The breakthrough for the opposition came on Sunday, when the Labour Party’s chapters in both the northern counties of Troms and Finnmark voted against a konsekvensutredning of oil activity off not only Lofoten but Vesterålen and Senja as well. That made headlines, because Labour traditionally has supported oil and gas development because of the jobs it provides.

“This is a big day,” Mani Hussaini, leader of Labour’s national youth organization AUF, told reporters after the voting at a meeting of Labour representatives in Northern Norway. “It shows that people are putting the climate ahead of oil.” AUF has long been at odds with the party itself over oil drilling off Lofoten, and Hussaini called the verdict of the two county chapters “a turning point” in the lengthy conflict.

“This shifts the balance in Norwegian politics,” agreed Frederic Hauge of environmental organization Bellona. He told news bureau NTB that “now there will most likely be a majority against oil off Lofoten at the national convention this spring.”

The fight isn’t over, with Labour’s chapter in Lofoten’s own county, Nordland, still promoting the study of oil’s consequences. “Nordland Labour stands firm that we want to move forward with this,” the party’s local county leader, Bjørnar Skjæran, told NRK on Monday. The party’s national program committee also backed the study three years ago, but when Labour lost the national election in September 2013, the entire issue was put on ice by the minority conservative government coalition that’s ruled since. The Conservatives and Progress parties want to develop oil fields off the northern coast, but their government partners (the Liberals and Christian Democrats) wouldn’t allow it.

Lofoten, oil - grafitti on a stone in Svolvær, march 2013

Environmentalists, the local fishing industry and tourism officials have long opposed the prospect of oil activity off Lofoten, which led to this grafitti spotted several years ago: “The devil (can) take the oil,” reads this message sprayed on a rock near Svolvær. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

While proponents have claimed they “don’t understand the fear of gaining more knowledge” about oil field development, the two Labour Party chapters aren’t the only ones now voting to block it. Several powerful trade union federations within the state’s largest, LO, have also come out against oil industry development in the area. Last week, the municipality of Vågan became the latest on Lofoten itself to vote against a study of it, too.

The other Lofoten municipalities of Moskenes, Flakstad, Røst and Værøy had already voted against. That’s marked a major turnaround itself, since five out of six local council’s favoured the economic development potential of oil as late as in 2010.

Since then, Lofoten’s tourism industry has exploded, as has its local fishing industry. Both opposed the prospect of oil exploration in the area, because of environmental concerns.

“Now this isn’t seismic anymore, but music in my years,” Sigurn Enge of the environmental group Bellona told NRK. Even though national politicians will ultimately decide whether the area’s petroleum resources should be developed, the momentum is against it. “Now there’s local opposition, and the world has changed since the climate meeting in Paris,” Enge said. “Folks understand that some of the oil has to remain in the ground, and the most natural areas where we should not drill is off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja. This is sinking in.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund