Voters 'forgot' the environment

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Many politicians thought that environmental issues would play a major role in the recent parliamentary election in Norway, but it appears voters forgot their concerns at the ballot box. The parties that had placed the environment highest on their agendas fared most poorly on Election Day.

The Socialist Left (SV) was the most vocal on environmental issues. Party leader Kristin Halvorsen campaigned heavily along the coast of northern Norway, which has been targeted for more oil exploration. She sailed on a vessel operated by environmental group Bellona, met reporters in the company of an environmental advocate and scion of the Kennedy family in the US, and held appeals in town squares on the islands of Lofoten.

She was convinced she had broad support for SV’s strong opposition to oil exploration off Lofoten and Vesterålen. Also that voters would rally behind the party’s opposition to oil company StatoilHydro’s involvement in a controversial oilsands project in Alberta, Canada. Halvorsen’s party colleague Erik Solheim has called on state-controlled StatoilHydro to pull out of the project.Halvorsen ended up being disappointed. Voters dealt her partya major loss at the pollsand SV wasn’t alone. Her government partner, the Center Party (Sp), also stresses the environment and barely held on to its seats in Parliament. The Liberal Party (Venstre) , which also stressed environmental protection in its campaign, did even worse than SV and Sp, and its leader was thrown out of Parliament.

“It’s hard to explain SV’s fall,” said Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party, which was the big winner and kept a much lower profile on environmental issues. Stoltenberg, who has promised to be a driving force in favor of emission cuts at upcoming international climate conferences, had declined to take a stand at home on the offshore exploration issue until after the election. Nor does he seem willing to instruct StatoilHydro on the oil sands issue.

Analysts suggested SV’s “environmental vote” went to Labour, its other government partner, and that the Liberals’ vote went to SV. It wasn’t enough. “We were just a little green voice,” said Lars Sponheim, the outgoing head of the defeated Liberals.

Halvorsen nonetheless says she’ll carry on the campaign to prevent drilling off Lofoten and has “good arguments” that her government colleague Labour needs to hear. The constituency she thought she had in northern Norway didn’t materialize, though, and locals from Tromsø to Svolvær said that oil exploration has support. It can bring jobs and economic growth.

Curiously, reports emerged just before the election that StatoilHydro itself will be cutting its Norwegian exploration activity in half during the next few years. The state oil directorate predicts that expected investment in oil exploration will be under half the current level by 2013. CEO Helge Lund has said StatoilHydro, which is behind 80 percent of Norwegian exploration activity, has had a high level of exploration recently and sees a need for reduction.