Battle heats up over Lofoten

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A group of 16 mayors from the northern counties of Nordland and Troms trooped into government headquarters in Oslo on Wednesday, to demand an official report into the consequences of oil exploration and drilling off scenic Lofoten and Vesterålen. They claim such a report is needed, in order to finally make an educated decision on whether oil activity in the area should be allowed.

The prospect of oil exploration and drilling off Lofoten has led to heated arguments, also within Norway's coalition government. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons/Øystein Bjørke

Some of the mayors already welcome oil industry activity in their waters, because of the jobs and economic development it could bring. Others are dead-set against it, seeing it as a huge threat to the area’s traditional fishing industry and important tourism activity. Still others are undecided, and trying to juggle arguments on both sides.

The arguments are heated as well within Norway’s coalition government itself. Two of the coalition’s three parties, the Socialist Left (SV) and the Center Party, oppose oil industry operations off Lofoten and Vesterålen and have resisted the report known as a konsekvensutredning, because such reports often clear the way for the industry. SV has been urging a total and permanent ban on oil exploration and drilling off Lofoten. Environmental groups including Bellona and Friends of the Earth Norway, the island community of Røst, a grass-roots movement in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja and the Nordland fishing association Nordland Fylkes Fiskarlag also oppose spending time and money on the report.

The issue is so serious that it could topple the government. The coalition is dominated by the Labour Party, which traditionally is a big supporter of job creation and industry. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has so far managed to avoid forcing a decision, refusing to take a stand during the national election campaign of 2009 and waiting for a forvaltning (management) report on offshore activity due later this year.

Now the mayors seem to have lost patience, and they secured a meeting with Stoltenberg, the heads of both SV and the Center Party and other key cabinet ministers involved in the issue. The mayors claim it’s “high time” the government makes a decision on what’s an important issue for northern Norway and the country. A report on the consequences of oil activity, they claim, is the only way politicians can correctly evaluate whether to allow it or ban it.

Planned to listen
Stoltenberg told reporters before the meeting began at noon that he and his government colleagues would mostly listen to what the mayors from northern Norway had to say.

“We will do what I’ve been saying we’ll do,” Stoltenberg said, “to listen and have a dialogue and then put forth our conclusions in the management report we’ve been working on.”

He also claimed his sometimes unruly coalition, which has managed to stay together for more than five years, will handle the issue as it has other controversial ones and find a solution.

The oil industry, meanwhile, continues to actively campaign for exploration and drilling rights. Last year’s fatal accident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sullied industry arguments but now there are signs of more popular support.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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