Labour’s love lost on Lofoten debate

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre has finally confirmed that Norway’s scenic Lofoten islands need some tender loving care, with parts of their offshore waters protected from oil exploration and production. His jobs-minded party, however, isn’t extending full protection to other nearby areas, and that means few apart from Støre himself are happy with a proposed compromise announced this week.

Many want to keep all the waters around Lofoten free from oil exploration and production, but the debate goes on, even after the divided Labour Party reached a compromise of its own. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“This is an especially vulnerable area where there’s a need to be extremely careful,” Støre stated after Labour’s program committee settled on what it called a “three-part solution” to the problem of balancing oil industry interests versus those of the fishing and tourism industries and environmentalists.

The proposed “solution,” to be voted upon at Labour’s annual national meeting in April, involves placing a 50-kilometer-wide “petroleum-free zone” off Lofoten that includes the entire Vestfjorden. “That’s how we want to make sure that Lofoten itself remains oil-free,” Støre said. Labour also backs plans to create an offshore national park off the southern tip of Lofoten’s Moskenes Peninsula.

In the offshore area known as Nordland VI (6), and west of Røst, however, Labour proposes going ahead with what the Norwegians call a konsekvensutredning that would examine the consequences of oil activity. Such studies are normally viewed as the first step in allowing such activity. Støre stressed that Nordland VI is close to areas where oil and gas activity and infrastructure already exists. He claimed it’s also less likely to pose conflicts between the oil and fishing industries.

Under Labour’s proposed compromise, oil activity would likely be allowed in the area known as Nordland VI (6), southwest of Lofoten and not far from the island of Røst. The waters between Svolvær on Lofoten and the city of Bodø (Vestfjorden) would continue to be protected, but environmentalists were quick to note that they’ve never been proposed for oil activity anyway. ILLUSTRATION: Oljedirektoratet

In the offshore areas known as Nordland VII (7) and Troms II (2), northwest of Lofoten and off the coasts of Vesterålen and Senja, Labour proposes postponing any official examination of oil activity throughout the next parliamentary period that will begin after the September election. That would protect the area for at least another four years.

“We want to wait for updated knowledge about the management (of oil resources) for Lofoten and in the Barents Sea,” Støre said.

The Labour Party leader has been under pressure to take a stand in the ongoing debate over oil activity around Lofoten. The pressure rose when even several of Labour’s own party chapters in Northern Norway, usually keen on projects that will create new jobs, voted against any more studies or impact statements that could lead to oil activity. The threats it could pose to some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, the booming tourist industry, the environment and the climate were simply too great, they argued.

Even various trade union federations within the national labour confederation LO look set to vote in favour of keeping the waters around Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja oil-free. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported that many top business leaders in Northern Norway also now oppose oil activity, with many others unsure about how many new jobs such activity would actually create.

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre was already facing plenty of challenges to the Lofoten compromise worked out on Monday. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

It all left Støre and his Labour Party subject to more tough criticism on Tuesday from both the “pro-oil parties” now holding government power, the Conservatives and the Progress Party, on the one side and environmental activists on the other, plus many others from the ranks of business and labour.

“They’re letting down the industry,” claimed new Oil Minister Terje Søviknes of the Progress Party. Nikolai Astrup of the Conservatives criticized Labour for making an “historic political turnaround.” He claimed that Labour has always said earlier that they sought more knowledge (about issues), but “now they’re saying ‘no’ (to a study of the consequences) before they have knowledge.”

Silje Lundberg of Naturvernforbundet, Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth, said she wasn’t happy either: “They say they’re protecting areas of Lofoten, but the border doesn’t go much beyond the island of Røst,” Lundberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. “They’re only protecting an area that’s never been subject to oil activity, Vestfjorden. I hope no one in the Labour Party is tricked by this.”

Labour’s own youth organization, AUF, was also unhappy. Its representative on Labour’s program committee voted against the compromise, so the issue will still be up for an internal fight at the party’s national meeting in April. AUF leader Mani Hussaini thinks Støre’s proposed compromise “isn’t good enough” because it would open up the still-dispute Nordland VI area. He now plans to mobilize opposition in an effort to keep all of Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja oil-free.

strong>newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund