Liberals lose their climate credibility

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Veteran environmentalist Frederic Hauge has joined the ranks of those giving up on Norway’s embattled Liberal Party. He and fellow activist Gaute Eiterjord claim the party has lost whatever credibility it had left this week when its deputy leader Ola Elvestuen, who serves as Climate and Environment Minister, refused to block oil drilling near an important coral reef off the coast of Northern Norway.

Gaute Eiterjord (left) of Natur og Ungdom and Frederic Hauge of Bellona sailed from Svolvær in Lofoten this week to launch a demonstration at sea aimed at hindering a German oil company from drilling in what they claim is a highly sensitive area. PHOTO: Natur og Ungdom/Jørgen Næss

Elvestuen’s decision has propelled Hauge and other environmental activists into protest mode, as they launched a civil disobedience plan aimed at disrupting the drilling at sea. “We are very sad, just in despair,” Hauge told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after Elvestuen’s decision was announced. “Not only have we lost one of the most precious areas along the entire Norwegian coast to the oil industry, we have also lost the Liberals as an environmental party.”

Hauge, who has headed the environmental organization Bellona for years, was joined by Gaute Eiterjord, leader of Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth), in slamming both Elvestuen and his party, which already has lost so many of its voters that current public opinion polls indicate it wouldn’t gain representation in Parliament.

“The Liberals have let us down completely,” Eiterjord declared. “If there’s any oil spill (where this week’s drilling is due to commence), the oil can be driven far into the seas around Lofoten. That would be catastrophic for breeding grounds, sea birds and the reef.”

He and Hauge were both on Bellona’s board Kallinika on Tuesday, sailing towards the area where German oil company Wintershall Dea has now controversially won permission to use the drilling rig West Hercules to start oil exploration at Trænarevet, located between the rich fishing grounds around Røst and the Helgelands Coast, and south of Lofoten. The rig was also on its way to the area where Wintershall hopes to strike oil, and expected to be in place at Trænarevet on Wednesday.

“It’s a dark day for the environment (after being) totally betrayed in the environmental campaign by Ola Elvestuen,” Hauge added, claiming that Elvestuen based his decision on “the oil industry’s information” while rejecting complaints from Bellona, Natur og Ungdom and the local fishing organization Norges Kystfiskarlag.

New warnings from new research
Norway’s own oceanography and research institute Havforskningsinstituttet has also advised strongly against drilling in the area, as have seafood and fishing associations and the Lofoten Council. NRK reported Tuesday that a new study shows that any oil spill off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja will permanently alter the ecosystem in the Norwegian- and Barents Seas.

“We clearly see that the ecosystems won’t manage to recover after an oil spill,” Erik Olsen, head of research at Havforskningsinstituttet. He and his colleagues have spent four years studying how an oil spill would affect local ecosystems. Herring and haddock would be hit the hardest, but new findings indicate that the consequences of oil pollution are far more serious than previously thought.

The seas around Lofoten boast some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. PHOTO: Natur og Ungdom/Jørgen Næss Karlsen

At stake is Norway’s second-most lucrative industry after oil: fishing and seafood production. The country’s important and traditional cod industry would likely recover after  five- to 10 years, but other fish stocks and plantlife could be irreparably harmed. “We’re worried about fishing stocks and what we live off of,” Kjell Ingebrigtsen, leader of the the national fishing organization Norges Fiskarlag, told NRK on Tuesday. He thinks state and government authorities should pay more attention to the researchers’ findings than they have.

Elvestuen, however, stated that “after thorough handling (of the oil interests’ drilling application) and a professional review,” his ministry couldn’t find reason to overturn the state environmental directorate’s (Miljødirektoratet) approval of the project. He claimed his hands were tied, since the area already had been opened up for oil and gas exploration by the former left-center government led by the Labour Party.

“The Liberals were against that in 2011,” Elvestuen pointed out as he tied to fend off all the criticism directed at him. “I don’t think this area should have petroleum activity, but that decision was already made. Now I have to follow the regulations and determine whether this (Wintershall’s drilling project) is responsible within the framework established.” It is, according to the information he was given.

Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen, shown here speaking just last week at a government-sponsored conference ironically aimed at protecting the world’s oceans. Critics called on Norway to do a better job of protecting its own offshore areas. PHOTO: Klima- og miljødepartementet

Elvestuen stressed that the case shows how important it is to stop opening up new areas of the Norwegian Continental Shelf to oil activity. The areas directly surrounding Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja have not been opened up despite heavy lobbying from the oil industry.

Wintershall officials, meanwhile, were not surprised that Elvestuen had opted against blocking their project. “This is what we expected, and shows that we, as usual, have undertaken thorough preparations in planning for the drilling,” said a company spokesman, who also stressed how the project can create jobs and wealth in Northern Norway. DEA Norges AS, which is the local Wintershall entity formed to carry out the project, has also had to comply with “strict” environmental standards and be prepared to handle any “acute pollution.”

Wintershall’s drilling rig could expect to encounter a protest action at sea. “We have tried all democratic means,” Hauge of Bellona told NRK, to no avail, “and we are going to follow this through. We will use Bellona’s boat to physically hinder that they start drilling on Wednesday.” The activists have the support of, among others, a local civilian organization that aims to keep Lofoten free of oil.

Liberals’ leader caved in on Arctic drilling, too
The Liberals, meanwhile, have mostly been stymied by conservative coalition partners in their efforts to deliver what they still insist are green initiatives as members of the government. There was some speculation last week that the party would stand firm against efforts to allow more oil exploration in the northern areas of the Barents Sea. The Liberals want to draw the line farther south of the so-called “ice edge.”

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported last week that the Liberals seemed so determined to keep petroleum activity far from the ice edge that they might threaten to leave the conservative government coalition. It’s made up of parties far more oil-friendly than the Liberals, not least the Progress Party that was skeptical towards climate change for years, but without the Liberals, the government would lose its majority in Parliament.

In the end, however, the Liberals’ beleaguered leader Trine Skei Grande also caved in on that issue as well. After declaring at her party’s national meeting over the weekend that the disagreement over where oil activity should be allowed in the Arctic is “a battle we must win,” she told NRK on Monday that she wouldn’t pose any ultimatum to her government colleagues. Even though her party approved a measure on Saturday that Arctic oil must be left to lie under the seafloor with no more drilling in the Barents, Grande backed down during a live interview that included a former oil minister from Progress.

“We will sit down and develop a new management plan for a new area,” Grande said. Her strong weekend rhetoric was gone, while Progress was a categorisk as ever in its view that the “ice edge” boundary must be flexible as Arctic ice melts. Berglund