Calls rise for oil minister’s exit

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Oil & Energy Minister Terje Riis-Johansen was back in the headlines over the weekend, after he told an Oslo newspaper that he “personally” thinks it would be wrong to allow oil and gas exploration off scenic Lofoten in northern Norway. Some opposition politicians think he should resign.

Oil Minister Terje Riis-Johansen is in trouble with the opposition once again. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no/Torbjørn Tandberg

Members of Parliament for both the Conservatives (Høyre) and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) suggested Riis-Johansen was deceiving both the oil industry and other proponents of oil and gas exploration, by spending millions on studies of the consequences if he’s already made up his mind on the issue.

Riis-Johansen told newspaper VG that he personally doesn’t think the waters off Lofoten and Vesterålen should be opened up for oil and gas drilling now, given the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He traveled to the US on Sunday to see consequences of the spill first-hand.

One Frp politician told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Riis-Johansen isn’t supposed to have “personal” opinions and should follow his government’s politics, which officially have been to refrain from taking a stand on the issue until they’ve received a full study of the consequences of oil drilling in the area.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg felt obliged to interrupt his summer holiday once again, to address the latest controversy involving his cabinet minister in charge of oil and energy. Riis-Johansen just recently faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament, for example, over delays tied to the government’s carbon capture project at the Mongstad plant in western Norway.

Stoltenberg, inteviewed after a bike ride in the forest north of Oslo, told NRK that Riis-Johansen’s comments merely reflected already well-known disagreement within his three-party government coalition. Riis-Johansen’s Center Party has gone on record that it will oppose oil drilling off Lofoten, as has the Socialist Left party. It’s Stoltenberg’s own, dominant Labour Party that has refused to take a stand pending results of the study.

But since Riis-Johansen is oil minister, his comments were deemed inappropriate by the opposition and those supporting more oil exploration. Others felt they suggest the government will in fact ultimately prohibit oil drilling off Lofoten.

“This means that the seriousness of the issue has finally sunk in at the government’s offices,” the mayor of the nearby island of Røst told news bureau NTB. He interpreted Riis-Johansen’s remarks as a “full victory” for drilling opponents.

Professor Dag Harald Claes, viewed as an expert on Norwegian oil politics, told NTB that Riis-Johansen’s personal opposition to oil drilling off Lofoten “will make it difficult” for the government to allow it. 

Riis-Johansen told NRK, NTB and other media that “we are obligated” to consider the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico when evaluating drilling in environmentally sensitive areas like Lofoten. It’s a popular tourist destination and has rich fishing grounds, and both those industries have challenged drilling along with numerous environmental organizations.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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