Labour unleashes storm over Lofoten

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Battle cries were raging on Thursday after the Labour Party finally made a long-expected but hotly contested decision to pursue the prospect of drilling for oil off Lofoten and Vesterålen in northern Norway. The areas are best known for their rich fishing grounds and spectacular scenery, so the decision by Labour’s program committee predictably unleashed a storm of protests.

... so now there's speculation that at least Lofoten might be spared the prospect of offshore oil and gas exploration. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons/Øystein Bjørke

Lofoten is once again a battleground over the prospect of offshore oil and gas exploration nearby. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons/Øystein Bjørke

Environmental organizations weren’t the only ones voicing loud objections and vowing to fight any attempts to drill in the areas. Some politicians in opposition were claiming that Labour was clearly favouring the oil industry over the fishing industry, given the threat oil poses to traditional fishing grounds.

Labour’s own partner in Norway’s government coalition, the Socialist Left party (SV), also firmly opposes opening the area to oil industry activity and one of its top officials, Bård Vegar Solhjell, serves as the government minister in charge of environmental issues. Solhjell, while unhappy over Labour’s decision to favour the jobs oil activity would bring over the environmental protection of an SV-favoured ban on drilling, seemed confident Labour would change its collective mind on the issue.

“The Labour Party has given up its standpoint earlier (on drilling off Lofoten) and I think they will give this (the program committee’s decision) up, too,” Solhjell told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He thinks local opposition from the important fishing industry in Lofoten and Vesterålen is too strong for Labour to defy it.

Fully 15 of the 16 members of Labour’s program committee supported, however, the decision to move forward with what’s called a konsekvensutredning (a formal study of the consequences) for oil and gas exploration off Lofoten.  Support for such a study often indicates support for what’s being studied, and that’s what worries opponents to exploration.

Labour appeasing labour
Labour needs to appease its strongest sources of support, the labour federations that support exploration because of the jobs it can create. Helga Pedersen, deputy leader of Labour from northern Norway and a former fisheries minister herself, defended the program committee’s decision.

“When there are such strong viewpoints on both sides, I think the only right thing to do is to get a thorough study of the consequences on the table and involve democracy in its preparation,” Pedersen told NRK. “Then we’ll have a proper basis for making a decision.”

Other argue that the world needs more oil and gas, and industry studies suggest the Norwegian continental shelf off Lofoten and Vesterålen is rich in new sources of both. State oil company Statoil is especially eager to start drilling test wells, despite its recent major discoveries in other areas. All sources of more oil must be tapped, argue company executives.

Battle goes on
Solhjell doesn’t think the battle is lost, even though Labour dominates the government coalition and even though the oil minister from its third partner, the Center Party, has personally supported exploration off Lofoten and Vesterålen. Both Solhjell and SV’s leader, Audun Lysbakken, think Labour won’t be able to ignore either popular opinion or the opinion of the fishing industry, both of which oppose drilling.

Lysbakken said the consequences of an oil spill or other accidents would be “catastrophic” for Norway’s huge seafood exports, also an important source of jobs in the area.

Norway’s biggest environmental organizations including Bellona, Friends of the Earth Norway and the youth organization Natur og Ungdom were all launching new campaigns against prospects for oil drilling. Silje Lundberg of Natur og Ungdom claimed that Labour was showing that “they don’t care about the world’s climate”  Fredrik Hauge of Bellona was ready for another battle.

“We’ve fought against this for 20 years,” he told NRK. “We will continue to take care of these fantastic areas. No matter who wins the fall elections, this will absolutely be the most difficult issue for the government.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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