Gulf crisis plays into Lofoten conflict

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It took them a while, but Norwegian environmental advocates and some top politicians are now sounding alarms over BP’s oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and using it as another argument against oil exploration off scenic Lofoten.

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Government minister and party leader Kristin Halvorsen went on national radio Thursday morning, warning that what’s happened in the gulf can happen off the scenic coasts of Lofoten and Vesterålen if oil exploration is allowed in the area.

The waters off northern Norway are also rich fishing grounds, and Halvorsen doesn’t want the local fishing industry to face the same crisis now being faced by oyster and shrimp businesses operating in the gulf. Seabirds and other species would also be put at risk, she argues.

Around 5,000 barrels of crude oil per day continue to spill into gulf waters (PicApp photo) after a BP drilling rig exploded south of the Mississippi delta on April 20. Several workers were killed and the resulting leaks have led to one of the worst oil-related environmental catastrophes in history.

“I think this has made a very big impression on very many because it shows that even with a lot of security measures and top modern technology, you can’t insure against accidents when you’re working with oil,” Halvorsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

Kristin Halvorsen doesn't want to risk a major oil spill off Lofoten and Vesterålen. PHOTO: SV

Halvorsen and most environmental groups in Norway have long opposed oil and gas exploration off Lofoten and the issue represents the biggest threat to the unity of Norway’s three-party coalition government. Halvorsen’s Socialist Left party (SV) and the Center Party (Sp) won’t approve proposals to open Lofoten and Vesterålen to oil exploration, but the  government’s third (and dominant) party, Labour, hasn’t taken an official stand yet. Labour politicians are divided, with job creation pitted against environmental protection.

“SV was convinced before the gulf accident that there’s no point in gambling with these areas (Lofoten and Vesterålen),” Halvorsen said. Now she hopes fellow politicians willing to open up the northern areas to more oil exploration will do like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and change their minds. He had wanted to allow drilling off the California coast, suspended after a major oil spill in 1969, but now thinks the risk is too high.

Halvorsen’s plea is falling on deaf ears among opposition politicians. Jan Tore Sanner of the Conservative Party said the gulf crisis and plans for Lofoten can’t be compared “because we set higher demands and we have come much farther regarding technological development.”

The chief executive of Statoil, which is lobbying heavily for oil drilling rights off Lofoten, admitted to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday that he couldn’t guarantee against accidents like the one in the gulf. The risk, however, “is no greater there than it is farther south,” Helge Lund told DN.

Statoil is also active in the Gulf of Mexico, and Lund said he expects the oil industry there will now face tougher safety demands and more limited access.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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