Norway’s left-center government unleashed two environmental bombs within 24 hours of each other this week, timed to explode when millions of Norwegians are both distracted and cheered by the Nordic World Ski Championships (Ski-VM) going on in Oslo. Now not only will controversial overhead power masts be built in Hardanger, but the long-awaited carbon capture program at Statoil’s Mongstad plant is being delayed yet again. Environmentalists and opposition politicians are furious.
“This is embarrassing,” the energy policy spokesman for the Conservative Party, Siri Meling, told newspaper Aftenposten. “It is not coincidental that the government announces bad news while there’s Ski-VM and winter holidays in parts of the country.”
Lars Haltbrekken, head of Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet), said he felt attacked on two fronts by the bad environmental news. “The government clearly hopes the bad news will drown in everything else going on,” he told Aftenposten.
Ola Skallvik Elvevold of environmental group Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) was even more direct: “The government is dumping all its environmental garbage while the whole country is up at Holmenkollen (the arenas where Ski-VM is being held). It’s a disheartening and unsympathetic feature of this government that they try to have the least amount of debate and controversy around important environmental issues.”
It all started Sunday, when the leaders of several environmental organizations were invited to the home of Environmental Minister Erik Solheim of the Socialist Left (SV) early Monday morning. There, Solheim leaked the news that carbon capture at Mongstad looks set to be delayed by another two years, until 2016. It’s a sensitive issue for SV, which has tried to maintain the highest environmental profile among the government coalition’s three parties: SV, Labour and the Center Party. Solheim himself led climate talks for Norway at the latest UN conference on climate change in Cancun.
The carbon capture plans have also been a prestige project for Labour, and were famously referred to by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as being the equivalent of a “moon-landing” for Norway. Now both the project and its costs are delayed, this time over alleged concerns of health hazards posed by the technology being used, although many other experts including leading research unit Sintef dispute the hazards and say they don’t warrant another delay. A spokeswoman for the opposition Christian Democrats party suggested Statoil was motivated by avoiding costs of the project, something Statoil denies. Meanwhile, the EU is already moving ahead on carbon capture and, some critics claim, leaving Norway in the dust while the country’s oil and gas industry continues to spew out the emissions Stoltenberg is otherwise trying to cut elsewhere in the world.
News of the delays at Mongstad were followed on Tuesday by confirmation that the government also is going ahead with construction of overhead power lines around the scenic Hardanger Fjord. That has also upset environmentalists and left residents and tourism officials in other scenic areas of Norway worried that they won’t have a chance of getting ugly power lines replaced by undersea cables. One youth group in Hardanger said Tuesday that the government should “be ashamed of itself.”
Snorre Valen, environmental spokesman for SV, denied his party had to swallow two huge environmental defeats at once and seems keen to stay in the government. “Mongstad is no defeat,” he claimed. “We can’t ignore demands involving health, the environment and security.”
Some political observers think the Mongstad and Hardanger issues will lead to a compromise on the third major environmental challenge facing the government coalition: Proposed oil and gas exploration in the waters off scenic Lofoten. SV and Sp have fought hard against any prospect of oil drilling in the area, and don’t even want to approve preparation of an environmental impact statement on the issue.
Labour, generally in favour of industrial projects that would create jobs, has so far officially remained non-committal on Lofoten. Now speculation is running high that Labour will give in to SV and Sp and give them a victory after disagreement over Mongstad and Hardanger, and boost Labour’s own sagging environmental profile at the same time.