Oil minister ‘crazy’ to open oil fields

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Fishing industry- and environmental advocates were reacting with disbelief on Tuesday after Norway’s new Oil & Energy Minister Terje Søviknes announced plans to open up a record number of new blocs in the Arctic for oil and gas exploration. “The man is crazy,” claimed Steinar Eliassen, director of the fishing firm Norfra.

Norway’s new Oil & Energy Minister Terje Søviknes has made a splash in his first move to open up new areas of the Arctic to oil and gas activity. His plans have been welcomed by the oil industry but blasted by the fishing industry and those concerned about the environment and climate. PHOTO: OED

“This is completely incomprehensible,” Eliassen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday. Several of the 102 potential oil fields that Søviknes is offering to oil companies for development lie close to seabird nesting grounds on the island of Bjørnøya, near the polar ice edge or right in the middle of rich fishing grounds in the Arctic areas of the Barents and Norwegian seas. Norway’s fishing and seafood industry is second only to oil and gas in its value to the country’s economy.

Søviknes said himself when he announced Norway’s new 24th licensing round on Monday that the “volume” of the new blocs is “quite massive.” The veteran politician for the conservative Progress Party, who served for many years as the mayor of Os near Bergen, has signalled an aggressive stance on oil industry development from the day he took office in January, and he’s now following through on that.

“This is a new record (of opening oil fields) in the Barents Sea and not far from an all-time high,” Søviknes declared, adding that “only once” before have so many blocs been offered in the Barents: 93 of the 102 put up for bid.

‘Gambling with our fishing resources’
Climate, environmental and fishing advocates were far from impressed. “This is like gambling with our fishing resources,” Eliassen told DN, noting that many areas now opening up for oil and gas exploration, with all the sonar and drilling that involves, are important breeding grounds for torsk (cod), sei (pollack), hyse (haddock) and sild (herring).”

“This first thought that occurred to me (after Søviknes opened the fields) is that the man is crazy,” Eliassen said, pointing specifically to Oil Bloc 7018, which he described as “one of the world’s richest fisheries.”

Søviknes dismissed Eliassen’s concerns as “overkill,” claiming that his government (led by the Conservatives with the Progress Party as its coalition partner) is merely following the management plan for the area that limits oil activity near Bjørnøya, the ice edge and land. He claims it’s environmentally defensible to open up the 102 blocs for exploration and, eventually, production.

Nearly half of all the new blocs opened up for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea lie north of Norway’s most northerly oil discovery at Wisting, around 300 kilometers north of Hammerfest. Critics claim the 102 blocs up for grabs in the Arctic lie far too close to the ice edge and protected bird colonies, and within rich fishing grounds. GRAPHIC: OED

“We have to drive a bit hard right now,” Søviknes told news bureau NTB, after oil prices collapsed nearly three years ago and led to a sharp downturn in Norway’s most important industry. Søviknes and his government colleagues are keen to revive the industry and create new jobs with what he called a “decent” licensing round in the Barents that can help “uphold long-term activity.”

Karl-Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen, chief executive of the oil industry association Norsk olje og gass, was predictably positive about the oil ministry’s plans. “The government is setting the stage for an offensive licensing of the areas, in line with practice on the Norwegian Continental Shelf,” Schjøtt-Pedersen told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday.

Both Eliassen and Frederic Hauge of the environmental organization Bellona firmly disagree with such plans. “This is ridiculous,” Hauge said in lodging his complaints with both DN and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Greed is absolutely taking over in this case. ” He told NRK that he also thinks EU officials will react to the Norwegian government’s new attempt to expand oil and gas activity in the sensitive Arctic not long after it committed itself to cutting carbon emissions. Hauge noted that while Canada and the US have moved to limit oil activity in the Arctic, “Norway is going in the opposite direction.”

Hauge, Silje Ask Lundberg of Naturvernforbundet (Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth) and Greenpeace all accuse the Norwegian government of ignoring its own climate goals. Ask noted that the government was advised by professional climate researchers against opening up 36 of the blocs now being offered to the oil companies. Greenpeace warned of a “catastrophe” if there are any oil spills because they’d be almost impossible to clean up.

While Hauge claimed the oil ministry’s plans “are full of desperation” just six months before the upcoming national election in which job creation is a big issue, Søviknes remained undaunted. He thinks the potential for new oil industry activity in the Barents is “exciting” and that his plans lie within an agreement struck between the government and its two support parties, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats.

“It’s important that we examine these areas that lie in the western portion of the Barents Sea,” Søviknes told NTB. “This is a very clear signal that we’re investing in the north.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund