Drilling debate off Lofoten rages on

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Three government ministers gathered in Lofoten this week to address oil and gas exploration plans in waters off the archipelago that also are known for their rich fishing grounds. They tried to assure skeptics that the ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico would indeed have consequences for the plans.

Scenic Lofoten is at the heart of drilling debates in northern Norway. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Cabinet minister Erik Solheim, in charge of environmental issues as well as foreign aid, has made it clear he opposes drilling off Lofoten and Vesterålen and said the government’s evaluation would be postponed for at least six months. Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen also expressed concern over drilling, while Oil Minister Terje Riis-Johansen said he would be traveling to the Gulf of Mexico to see spill damage himself.

“The oil accident is tragic in many ways,” Riis-Johansen said. “Two of my state secretaries have already been in the gulf to learn about it, and I’ll travel there myself later this summer.”

Opponents fear the government ministers’ expressions of concern are more aimed at placating them, than signaling a prohibition against drilling in the area. While Solheim’s Socialist Left party and Riis-Johansen’s Center Party oppose the proposed drilling off northern Norway, Berg-Hansen’s Labour Party hasn’t revealed its position and is known to favour industry and the job creation that more oil exploration could bring.

Riis-Johansen will meet with all major oil companies operating in Norway later this week, to question them about their preparedness for oil spills. He pointed to Norway’s 40 years of oil experience in the North Sea, though, and said at the public meeting in Lofoten that he thinks fishing and oil drilling can co-exist.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported that his statement infuriated fishing industry representatives. “It’s already been difficult to mix fishing with seismic operations,” said Reidar Nilsen of the fishing industry group Norges Fiskarlag. Another went futher: “We oppose any step towards oil exploration activities,” said Johnny Johnsen of Norges Kystfiskarlag. “The shelf off Lofoten is too narrow, there’s no room for co-existence.” He threatened to sue the government if it allows drilling there.

Proponents of oil exploration, however, were equally vehement. “For many generations we’ve sent fish that have built up cities in southern Norway,” said Hugo Bjørnstad, mayor of Vågan. “Oil and gas can now build up a new northern Norway.”

Fisherman Bjørn Nicolaisen from Andøya warned against the demands of local mayors, saying they’re under pressure and jump on all quick solutions that can bring short-term profits.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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