Huge reserves fuel Arctic oil debate

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UPDATED: Norway’s petroleum directorate reported on Tuesday that the country’s undiscovered offshore oil and gas reserves in the Barents Sea may be twice as large as previously thought. That’s only fueling the debate over whether they should be found and tapped, at a time when the largest political parties want to do just that.

Greenpeace activists are among those vowing to continue their fight to protect the Arctic from more oil exploration and development, at a time when undiscovered reserves are believed to be larger than expected and when Norway’s largest parties on both ends of the political spectrum support the oil industry. PHOTO: Greenpeace

The fate of the waters around Lofoten in Northern Norway, for example, is now likely up to the small parties that still fiercely oppose oil exploration and production in sensitive Arctic waters. After the Labour Party agreed at its national meeting last weekend to launch an official assessment of oil activity off Lofoten, it became clear that both it and the rival Conservatives support oil activity all over the Norwegian Continental Shelf, even though that’s not popular with a majority of Norwegian voters.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by Respons Analyse for newspaper Aftenposten showed that only 34 percent of Norwegians questioned are positive towards oil industry operations off the coast of Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, home to rich fishing grounds. Another 43 percent said they were negative, also to launching the official assessment (akin to an environmental impact statement) that’s called a konsekvensutredning (literally, a study of the consequences) of such oil activity.

That marks a change in the mood before the last parliamentary election in 2013, when 39 percent were positive and 41 percent were negative. Support for oil activity in Northern Norway has also declined, with 57 percent now negative.

Oil drilling and production is especially controversial in the Barents Sea, where the petroleum directorate now thinks there are more undiscovered resources than previously thought. Bente Nyland, leader of the directorate, unveiled figures at a conference in Hammerfest on Tuesday after charting around 170,000 square kilometers of the eastern portion of the Barents extending to the new border to Russia. News service E24 reported that the directorate now expects the area could produce around 10 billion barrels of crude oil.

“The numbers are naturally uncertain,” Nyland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday, “but we think this is exciting enough to work at further clarifying them.” She told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that the oil, condensate and gas reserves that may be lying under the surface of the eastern Barents could be worth as much as NOK 900 billion.

State barrels ahead
That’s music to the ears of the petroleum industry and politicians who want to ensure Norway’s oil wealth for years to come. The news disappointed environmental organizations, however, including Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth), which strongly oppose oil industry activity in the Barents, especially in its more northerly areas. They fear the further harm it can do to the climate and the environment.

State officials including Oil Minister Terje Søviknes of the Progress Party, which shares government power with the Conservatives, were, on the other hand, bullish this week as Statoil started more controversial drilling in the Barents while denying the company was working too close to the polar ice edge. Søviknes visited the Snøhvit field off Hammerfest this week on board the drilling rig Songa Enabler, and both he and oil field workers told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) they felt they were part of an historic venture that can extend Norway’s oil age and affluence.

Statoil has lots of other plans for oil and gas projects in the Arctic, much to the delight of oil industry lobbyist Karl Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen, a former top Labour Party politician who worries that the big parties (Labour, Progress and the Conservatives) may still get their wings clipped by the small parties that oppose them. Statoil CEO Eldar Sætre has pressed hard to open up both the Barents and the waters off Lofoten to more exploration, and basically got just what he wanted when both the Conservatives and, most recently, Labour went along with plans do so. Labour’s so-called “compromise,” which can lead to exploration of the most-disputed Nordland VI field just west of Røst, means the oil industry will gain control over at least half of the areas it wants. The areas Labour opted to protect just south of Lofoten, for example, aren’t believed to contain much oil reserves anyway.

There was opposition within the Labour Party over the oil exploration issue. Members of Labour’s youth group AUF, pictured here, were disappointed that their objections to exploration off Lofoten were overruled. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

While oil industry workers demonstrated outside Labour’s weekend meeting in Oslo to protect their industry and not scenic Lofoten instead, the environmental lobby was out in force as well. They were also demonstrating. In a commentary published in Aftenposten during the weekend, the leaders of three major environmental organizations and the local group trying to shield Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja also noted how Labour once was known as a party committed to the environment, with a leader (Gro Harlem Brundtland) who all but coined the term “sustainable development” and an environment minister (Siri Bjerke) who once ordered a drilling rig on its way to the waters off Røst to turn around. Now, 16 years later, Labour and its new leader Jonas Gahr Støre are ready to open up those same waters and many others to oil interests, over the objections of its youth organization AUF.

In short, opponents of oil industry expansion fear that “money talks and principles walk” in today’s Labour Party. Natur og Ungdom, Naturvernforbundet and the residents’ group accused Labour as a party that’s now letting down both the environment and the fishing industry, which strongly opposes oil activity in the waters off Røst. Labour did exactly what former Oil Minister Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party, who is now active in an oil industry venture himself, wanted to do himself when he still held power in 2013.  And now Labour looks set to cooperate with the Center Party in forming a new left-center government

Small parties still may plug the oil flow
The Center Party itself, however, has opposed exploration and production around Lofoten, in line with SV and the small Liberal and Christian Democrats parties. It’s a paradox that those small parties more closely reflect the will of the people in the oil debate than the large parties in Parliament. “What do you think would happen if Australia suddenly started drilling for oil off the Great Barrier Reef?” Øystein Røymo, fishing off Røst last month in waters that also contain the world’s largest cold water coral reef, told Aftenposten. He thinks it’s “crazy” that Norway’s biggest political parties want to allow oil activity in his fishing workplace.

The question now, after Labour clarified its stance in favour of the oil industry, is whether the small parties (whose support is often needed for swing votes on critical issues) will once again succeed at blocking the oil industry activity promoted by the big parties. Søviknes has openly wondered how long the small parties will be allowed to have such power and decide. Jørn Eggum of trade union federation Fellesforbundet, among those out demonstrating on behalf of oil workers over the weekend, wonders as well, along with Schjøtt-Pedersen of the industry group Norsk olje og gass. All the more reason there’s a need for the official assessment off Lofoten, he believes. Others view it merely as the formality that will open the waters once and for all.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund