The leader of the one of the Norwegian coalition government’s own support parties is demanding an explanation on the floor of Parliament from Oil Minister Tord Lien, over how the waters off Lofoten, Bjørnøya and Møre wound up in the government’s controversial 24th oil exploration licensing round. Lien has claimed it was simply a mistake on his part, while Prime Minister Erna Solberg says it has been corrected.
That hasn’t satisfied Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats, who sent a letter on Tuesday to the oil minister and asked for an official explanation. The government’s other support party, the Liberals, also has questions about how Lien could have made such a mistake, when they have an agreement that those waters in especially environmentally sensitive areas remain off-bounds.
Lien and Solberg announced the new licensing round last month during the large ONS oil industry conference (Offshore Northern Seas) in Stavanger. Both remain keen on stimulating Norway’s oil industry because of the jobs it creates and its financial contribution to state coffers, and caught plenty of criticism for their call for more offshore activity. Critics contend the government is more concerned about jobs and the economy than the oil industry’s carbon emissions and their effect on the environment and the climate.
Lien is especially bullish on more oil exploration and production, even in sensitive Arctic waters and those around scenic Lofoten, which also is home to lots of tourism and fishing businesses. That’s put more pressure on Lofoten, even though no exploration is supposed to be allowed during this parliamentary sesson.
Lien later backed down on his call for bids, but news broke last week that Lofoten, Bjørnøya in the Arctic and Møre were still included in the licensing round. Lien confirmed on Friday that he had given incorrect information to Solberg about which areas he would open for the oil companies.
‘Lied’ to the prime minister
That’s led to calls for Lien’s resignation as oil minister, with both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals claiming their agreement with the government about restricting oil exploration off Lofoten had been broken. “This has created an impression that a very important issue for the Christrian Democrats and the Liberals has not been respected and taken seriosuly by the government,” Hareide told news bureau NTB on Monday. The Liberals’ leader, Trine Skei Grande, went so far as to say Lien had “lied” to the prime minister.
Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party, has continued to support Lien, who hails from the Progress Party, the Conservatives’ government coalition partner. In a message sent to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday, Solberg wrote that “Tord Lien is a competent oil and energy minister. He is genuinely concerned about the industry and Norwegian jobs. I have a good and confident relationship to Tord.” The prime minister added that Lien had “made a mistake and corrected it quickly. I have full confidence in Lien.”
Lien apologized for his ministry’s inclusion of the waters off Lofoten and Møre in the licensing round. He attributed the inclusion to “an incorrect evaluation and not bad intentions,” adding “I apologize for that.” He indicated he was trying to quickly correct his error “so that there won’t be any doubt about the government’s policy.”
Grounds for fire
Frank Aarebrot, a professor at the University of Bergen and an expert in election research, told NTB he still thinks there are strong reasons for Solberg to replace Lien as oil minister. “This mistake was so big that it formally could lead to Lien’s departure,” Aarebrot said. “If Tord Lien had been a member of the Conservatives in a real Conservative government, Erna Solberg would have probably fired him.”
Lien, meanwhile, carried on this week with other ministerial duties, including a trip out to the Statfjord oil field in the North Sea that celebrated pumping up its 5 billionth barrel of oil on Monday. The Statfjord field has produced the most oil on the Norwegian Continental Shelf since it opened in 1975.
Lien stressed that the field has generated billions of kroner in revenues and provided more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs. “Revenues from Statfjord have contributed considerably to Norwegian society,” Lien stated during the celebration.