Worries rise over deep-water drilling

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The ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf Mexico may finally be having more consequences for oil drilling and exploration off Norway. Calls are rising for an immediate halt to deep-water drilling, but government officials and even regulators appear skeptical.

Aker Drilling's rig Aker Barents is currently drilling at Norway's deepest project so far, the Gro field run by Norske Shell in the Norwegian Sea. PHOTO: Aker Drilling

On Wednesday, newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) carried a major article with a headline that some politicians and environmentalists want to stop drilling in deep water. They’re deeply worried that the accident that occurred on a BP installation in the Gulf of Mexico could also occur off Norway, leading to an oil spill that could foul the Norwegian coastline and ruin the country’s important seafood industry.

On Thursday, newspaper Aftenposten carried a headline reporting that neither the Labour Party-dominated government nor the Petroleumstilssynet, the state watchdog over the oil and gas industry, wants to stop drilling in deep water. They reportedly don’t fear a Norwegian catastrophe along the lines of that in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Norwegian authorities indicated they have no intention of following US President Barack Obama’s lead in halting drilling in deep water. At present, Norske Shell, Statoil and GdF SUEZ EP Norge are working on Norway’s deepest well so far in the Gro field, 1,385 meters below the surface of the Norwegian Sea and about 350 kilometers west of Sandnessjøen in northern Norway. Hopes have been high that Gro will prove to be one of Norway’s largest gas producers.

‘Rules are being followed’
“Our impression, based on information and follow-up from drilling at Gro, is that this is going well and regulations are being followed,” Magne Ognedal of Petroleumstilsynet told Aftenposten after a meeting with Labour Minister Hanne Bjurstrøm of the Labour Party.

He conceded that it’s possible BP would have said the same before its own deep-water operation literally exploded, setting off the worst oil spill in US history. BP still hasn’t been able to stop the crude from gushing out of the seabed, many weeks after the explosion occurred.

Ognedal’s agency is compiling more information for Bjurstrøm. The Gulf accident already has further boosted concerns over oil and gas exploration plans off Norway’s scenic Lofoten and Vesterålen, and literally fueled opposition to them. Lars Haltbrekken of the environmental group Naturvernforbundet is demanding that Norway’s oil and environmental ministers halt deep-water drilling, noting that the state anti-pollution agency SFT warned of considerable danger around deep-water drilling off Norway back in 2003.

Instead, Petroleumtilsynet approved use of Aker Drilling’s Aker Barents drilling rig on the Gro field just three days after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Petroleumtilsynet contends that studies have shown there is less risk in Norwegian waters.

‘Must have consequences’
Frederic Hauge, the outspoken leader of environmental group Bellona, also opposes deep-water drilling and told Dagens Næringsliv that the accident in the gulf must have consequences in Norway. He points, for example, to recent problems on Statoil’s Gullfaks C field and he’s continuing the fight against oil exploration off Lofoten.

Bjurstrøm concedes that that all oil activity carries a degree of risk, and that no one can say that an accident like BP’s in the Gulf of Mexico can’t occur in Norwegian waters. She has called in the major players for a meeting next week, to hear their plans and defense of continued drilling operations.

The Aker Barents is ultimately controlled by investor and businessman Kjell Inge Røkke, who controls the Aker concern and is known as being a supporter of the Labour Party. The current Labour-dominated government has invested heavily in an Aker subsidiary, in a bid to secure jobs and support industry, even though it led to huge controversy last year.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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