Embarrassed party under attack

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UPDATED: Norway’s small but powerful Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) was under attack from all sides on Wednesday after news broke that it had consciously kept Parliament and its own party faithful in the dark about oil law changes that will weaken political efforts to support outlying districts. Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe, deputy leader of the Center Party, was taking most of the flak.

Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party is being called both "arrogant" and "stupid" because of his attempts to keep a dispute with European authorities secret. PHOTO: Senterpartiet.no

The Center Party has political control over Norway’s important Oil & Energy Ministry, and both Moe and his predecessor from the party, Terje Riis-Johansen, had withheld complaints from European regulators over various aspects of Norway’s oil law. Its wording has allowed Norway to demand that oil companies doing business in Norwegian territorial waters must base operations on the Norwegian mainland, to bring economic development to outlying districts.

The European Free Trade Association (EFTA)’s Surveillance Authority (ESA) claims Norway  can’t make such demands, leaving oil companies free to run their Norwegian operations from elsewhere. Not only did the ministry’s political leadership keep ESA’s letter under wraps, they also hushed up a two-year battle that ensued with ESA over the issue. Apparently realizing they wouldn’t win, Moe and his ministry staff then proposed changes in the law that would satisfy ESA, and downplayed what they might mean for Norway’s outlying areas that have been hoping to cash in on oil exploration and drilling.

Now the parliament’s oil and energy committee has voted unanimously to postpone any action on the proposed changes to the oil law. Committee leader Siri Meling of the Conservative Party was highly critical about the way Moe and his ministry have handled the issue, and a public hearing is expected for any renewed action on June 14.

Newspaper Aftenposten, which broke the news about what some politicians are now calling a Center Party cover-up, revealed a letter written by ministry staff that confirmed efforts to keep the matter quiet, because of a perceived need to hinder a difficult and sensitive debate. The irony is that the Center Party and its government colleagues thought they were trying to protect district politics and preserve the hopes for economic development, by challenging the ESA. But then they didn’t want to admit having to bow to ESA demands.

The northern counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark are among those most hungry for economic benefits from oil industry activity.  Aftenposten reported Tuesday that officials in the north are now furious with Moe and his colleagues in the oil ministry. They fear economic development and jobs from the bases they’ve expected the oil companies to set up, will disappear.

“It’s annoying that they’ve put a lid on such an important issue and not sent it out to public hearing,” Runar Sjåstad, mayor of Finnmark for the Labour Party, told Aftenposten. His colleague Pia Svensgaard from Troms added that an “uprising” was imminent, “when more folks find out about this. There will be strong reaction, I have no doubt about that.”

Even one of Moe’s party fellows, Ivar Prestbakmo, was openly critical. “I’m not especially pleased with the way the government and the ministry have handled this,” he told Aftenposten, adding that “it creates the impression that they haven’t wanted to talk about the realities here.”

Dagfinn Høybråten, parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats, called the case “scandalous,” claiming that the ministry has shown “contempt” for the Parliament.

Moe agreed that his staff expressed themselves “imprecise and badly” when explaining the lack of openness by saying the issue was “politically difficult and sensitive for the government.” He had to admit his staff had intentionally tried to limit media coverage and debate of the proposed changes to the oil law.

It’s now expected that the changes will put out to public hearing after all, not least after editorials called Moe’s handling of the issue “arrogant” and “stupid.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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