One of Norway’s most scenic tourist magnets, the Lofoten peninsula, and the spectacular neighbouring areas of Vesterålen and Senja are once again under pressure. Record numbers of tourists are generally welcome, but now both the oil industry and the Conservatives-led coalition government are urging oil exploration and production in nearby waters that also are famed as rich fishing grounds.
The prospect of oil activity in the pristine seas off some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world has stirred controversy for years. It was all back-burnered when the current minority coalition government assumed power in 2013, because the two political parties it relies on for support in Parliament were opposed to oil exploration off Lofoten.
That didn’t stop Prime Minister Erna Solberg, however, from raising the issue anew last week while attending the Offshore Northern Seas (ONS) oil industry conference in Stavanger. She was as bullish as ever on oil and gas operations, announced the launch of a 24th licensing round for offshore oil fields and specifically said that she thinks several should be located off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja.
Her call came just days after Statoil’s chief executive, Eldar Sætre, also told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that there won’t be many new areas to develop oil fields off Norway if the politicians don’t soon open up Lofoten for oil activity. He’s keen to conquer new areas off both Lofoten and Vesterålen and in the Barents Sea, another area full of controversy because of its sensitive Arctic location.
‘Ready to do the job’
“We’re saying that if Norway wants to develop its resources and create more economic activity, we’re ready to do the job,” Sætre told DN. Fields off Lofoten have been identified for years, but any go-ahead has been put off because of the political controversy. While some residents of the area are positive towards oil drilling off their coast, as are labour unions that advocate job creation, others are dead-set against it. They contend it can scare away fish, pose a constant threat of pollution and be a hazard for the important tourist industry. Environmental activists worried about climate change are also strongly opposed.
Sætre maintains that time is running out if Norwegian politicians hope to maintain at least some oil industry activity while they otherwise try to move towards a “green shift” in the Norwegian economy. Statoil has kept busy expanding existing fields and being lucky with new oil and gas discoveries on fields already considered mature. But when the huge Johan Sverdrup field is completed, along with Johan Castberg and Snorre 2040, there’s not much left.
Lofoten, meanwhile, is already under some strain from the hordes of tourists descending on it every summer and now often in the “off season” as well. Both Lofoten and the nearby island of Røst set new tourism records once again this summer. That’s great for business but some are voicing capacity concerns, with traffic and camping vans everywhere and hotels running 99 percent full.
“I’ve never taken so many tourists around as this year,” Gunnar Johansen, who runs a sightseeing boat and works as a tourist guide. He’s born and reared on Røst. Now he earns NOK 600 per person to show them bird sanctuaries and the mountains from the sea. “It’s fantastic here,” Nils Haugland, age 30, from Larvik told DN after spending a few days on Værøy between Røst and Lofotodden.
Tourism officials, fishing officials and many residents want to keep it that way. They’re gearing up for another battle with oil-friendly politicians and the industry, while the environmental lobby also wants to halt more licensing in the Barents Sea. They have support from the small political parties that can swing the vote away from more drilling and production that may be championed by either a Conservatives- or Labour-led government.
Norwegian media was full last week of stories about political strategy both for and against oil. Labour has long supported exploration and production, but now its more environmentally minded members are calling on party leaders to drop its exploration enthusiasm in order to lure the Christian Democrats over to Labour’s side in next year’s national election. If Labour wants cooperation from the Christian Democrats, it must drop its support for exploration off Lofoten.
“Lofoten and Vesterålen are the new suicide paragraph (in the party’s platform),” Andreas Halse of the Labour Party told Dagsavisen. He doesn’t think exploration will ever be approved off those scenic shores: “It’s as likely as Norway pulling out of NATO or joining the EU,” he told Dagsavisen. The small centrist Liberal Party in addition to the Socialist Left (SV) and the Greens are also firmly opposed to oil activity in the area. That may make both Solberg’s and Sætre’s plans futile, despite the pressure they’re exerting.