Oil spill hits re-election campaign

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The oil spill soiling Norway’s coast this week is now being compared to the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, and it looks set to play a major role in the national election campaign that’s kicking into high gear. The government coalition parties seeking re-election appear split over its effect, not least on the controversial issue of offshore oil exploration near scenic Lofoten.

Environmentalists want to keep scenic areas like this one, near Henningsvær on Lofoten, free of any threat from oil spills. PHOTO: MORTEN ANDERSEN

Kristin Halvorsen, head of the Socialist Left, has been the most outspoken of late, claiming that environmental issues are the most important on her party’s agenda. Her party colleague, Environmental Minister Erik Solheim, told newspaper Dagsavisen that the oil spill from a ship off Langesund in Telemark is “a clear wake-up call.”

Halvorsen opposes more oil activity off Norway’s scenic Lofoten and traveled to the Arctic archipelago last week to drive home her point. She even had the American environmental advocate Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of the late senator, with her, along with Solheim and an investor in alternative energy ventures on board a vessel operated by the activist group Bellona.

“We will win Lofoten,” Halvorsen has said repeatedly, claiming she will convince her government colleagues to also oppose oil exploration in the area.Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg isn’t so sure, claiming he hasn’t made up his mind yet on the important issue. Nor has Labour taken a stand despite its importance for voters, in effect putting the issue on ice until after the election.

On Tuesday Stoltenberg flew over the affected areas of the oil spill in a helicopter, to survey the damage, and finally authorized state support for more oil spill preparedness that has been sought since at least 2003. He has seemed to downplay, though, any links between the offshore drilling issue and the oil spill that many politicians and environmental experts are calling a “catastrophe.”

Others see only the potential pollution from oil itself, and a large group of environmental activists was traveling to northern Norway this week to convince the local population to oppose drilling. At present, just over 20 percent favor exploration off Vesterålen while just over 50 percent are opposed and the rest undecided.Effects of the oil spill off southern Norway, meanwhile, seem to worsen by the day. Some experts say it will take years for the oil to disappear from pebbly beaches and rocky coastlines. The area is dotted with small islands and boat harbors, and thick gobs of oil have washed up as far south as Mandal.

It’s feared that much more of the 1,110 tons of heavy crude spilled from the ship, which grounded in a storm, than previously thought. Insurance claims are expected to pour in. The Chinese-owned, Panamanian-registered vessel was covered by the London P&I Club, reports newspaper Dagens Næringsliv .

(See also: Claims pile up after ship pollutes Norway’s coast )