Lofoten reprieve likely short-lived

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A recommendation from Norway’s oil minister to postpone oil exploration and production off Lofoten is no victory for the fishing industry and environmentalists trying to stop it. Many predict that it’s just a question of time before drilling starts near some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe went fishing himself while on a short trip to Lofoten last week. He claims he’s listening to the fishing industry’s objections to oil exploration in the area, but they’re not so sure. PHOTO: Olje- og energi departementet/Lise Rist

Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe remains bullish on the prospects for finding and producing more oil in the Norwegian Sea. A new series of reports on the prospects and consequences of oil drilling and production also confirms, in Moe’s opinion, that “there are no special environmental conditions that say we can’t have petroleum operations” in offshore blocs known as Nordland VI, Nordland VII and Troms II, in the seas off the west coast of Lofoten and Vesterålen. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that he is opening up Nordland VI, west of Røst, to “careful development” of oil production.

The reports released Friday also suggested that neither fishing nor the area’s important tourism industry is particularly threatened by oil activity. Even if an accident and oil spill occurs, the reports indicated that both fish and tourists would return within one to three years. Any downturn in hotel bookings could also be offset by an increase in seminar and conference activity within the oil industry.

Moe clearly wants the economic development that more oil industry activity would bring, but he nonetheless recommended just before the weekend that there be no opening of the area until after the next parliamentary period, in 2017. Moe claimed he was making a concession to the concerns of the fishing industry, which firmly believes that oil and fishing don’t mix.

“My recommendation is based on the strong opposition that those in fishing have expressed,” Moe said. He thinks history shows that the fishing and oil industries have worked out their differences before and believes reports released on Friday suggest that can happen again. “But I’m well aware that fishing organizations and other have protested,” Moe said, adding, though, that he also believes it’s only a question of time before there will be oil activity in the area.

Fishing industry activists, like many based here in scenic Henningsvær, firmly oppose oil exploration and fear they’ve only won a reprieve in their battle to keep drilling away from their fishing grounds. PHOTO: Morten Andersen

‘Strange message’
Moe’s conclusion seemed to leave both opponents and proponents of drilling frustrated.

“This is a strange message to those in fishing,” Arne Pedersen, leader of the large fishing organizaiton Norges Kystfiskarlag, told reporters. “He’s saying ‘we’ll listen to you,’ but at the same time it’s only a matter of when they’ll open up for oil activity.”

Pedersen was convinced that Moe’s position shows “that his priority is with the oil industry ahead of the fishing industry.” He accused Moe of just setting into motion a period when the fishing industry better get used to the idea of oil exploration in the midst of their fishing grounds.

Proponents also unhappy
While environmental leaders from such organizations as Bellona and Friends of the Earth were also skeptical to Moe’s recommended drilling delay, fearing it won’t last, those favouring oil exploration were also unhappy. “It’s sad that Moe concluded with an initial ‘no’ to oil drilling,” Kjell Børge Freiberg, local mayor from the Conservative Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “The only reason for it is the (left-center) government he’s sitting in.” While the government’s dominant Labour Party is also keen on the jobs oil can bring, the third member of the govenment coalition, the Socialist Left party (SV), is firmly opposed to drilling off Lofoten.

Meanwhile, Norway’s parliament also remains split on the issue, as do the opposition parties that may form a new non-socialist coalition if they win next year’s national election. The Progress Party is firmly in favour of more oil exploration and the Conservatives mostly favour it, while the Christian Democrats are skeptical and the Liberal Party is firmly opposed.

Sigurd Enge of the environmental group Bellona simply points to what he calls the “enormous power” and influence that the oil industry has over both the bureaucracy and political leadership in Norway. “When (state oil company) Statoil says they want Lofoten, it’s pretty much arranged that they’ll get it,” Enge told Dagsavisen.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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