NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway is caught in the midst of battle over its so-called Arctic “ice edge,” which experts claim really isn’t an edge at all. It’s rather meant to define a particularly sensitive area of the Arctic under Norway’s control, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be protected from oil and gas activity despite official efforts to portray Norway as climate- and environmentally conscious.
Debate over where the ice edge (iskant, in Norwegian) should lie is widely viewed as the most important and politically explosive issue on the government’s agenda this spring. It’s often portrayed as a line on maps of the Arctic running roughly off the southern coast of Svalbard and northeastwards.
It can be misleading, though, because the border it represents for an area called the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ) actually comprises both solid ice, floating ice and, with seasonal variations, lots of open water that scientists view as a “hugely important” home and source of nutrients to uniquely adapted species. The MIZ, defined by the global environmental organization WWF as a “highly productive and unique marine ecosystem,” is both “particularly vulnerable” and of “exceptional ecological importance,” according to Karoline Andaur, acting secretary general of WWF in Norway.
She and her colleagues including Nils Harley Boisen, senior Arctic adviser at WWF, met with foreign correspondents in Oslo this week to explain how the borders of the MIZ in Norway’s portion of the Barents Sea are about to be politically set. The Norwegian government and ultimately the Parliament will establish the area where the sea ice turns from solid ice cover to open water.
What happens after the borders are set, however, is just as important, because Norway has a dubious history of deeming Arctic areas as sensitive but then opening them up to oil exploration and potential production anyway. That’s how oil companies have been obtaining licenses to drill farther north in the Barents than ever before, despite warnings from scientific experts at the Norwegian Polar Institute (Norsk Polarinstitutt), Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (Havforskningsinstituttet) and the Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet). They had all warned against the exploration licenses that Norway’s Oil & Energy Ministry has issued near Bjørnøya and elsewhere in the Barents.
Now they’re all recommending that Norway’s current MIZ be expanded and its northerly border moved farther south. Oil ministry officials have ignored their earlier scientific advice, however, and can ignore it again. WWF’s Boisen notes how Norway’s own state auditor general has criticized government officials for being “terrible” at using the professional, scientific advice they’re given. It’s often been ignored when it can hinder the lucrative if increasingly controversial oil and gas production that has fueled Norway’s economy and filled its state treasury for years.
Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who has long supported the oil and gas industry, must now make it appear, at least, that she and her government colleagues care about the Arctic and will pay attention to scientific advice. Their traditional support for the oil industry, however, can be nurtured by unusual divisions within the official group advising them on “ice edge” issues, called the Faglig forum (Academic Forum for Norwegian Marine Areas). While three of the forum’s members including the Polar Institute, the Institute of Marine Research and the state Environment Agency all support formation of a larger protected zone (MIZ), another member, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (Oljedirektoratet), recommends a smaller zone that presumably would allow even more oil and gas activity in the Arctic. Three other members of the Academic Forum advising the government including Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority (Petroleumtilsynet), the Norwegian Coastal Administration (Kystverket) and the Norwegian Maritime Directorate (Sjøfartsdirektoratet) offer little if any advice at all, claiming they have “no opinion” on the issue.
“It’s very bizarre,” Boisen says, “that they don’t even explain the ecological implications here.” He claims this raises an entirely and even more troubling “issue of principles” within Norwegian management of its public areas. “Can we debate knowledge?” he asks rhetorically. “Should we listen to the scientists? We say ‘yes!’ The scientific institutions, environmental organizations and some political parties say ‘yes.’ The offshore industry, oil companies and some political parties say ‘no.’ Basically, it’s been nuts.” Both he and Andaur of WWF claim the credibility of the Academic Forum itself is at stake.
WWF is, in line with its mission of protecting the world’s wildlife, following the ice edge debate closely and lobbying hard where and when it can in favour of a larger MIZ. Huge amounts of Norway’s Arctic areas are at stake, with the larger area recommended by the three scientific organizations more than 150,000 square kilometers larger than the one recommended by the Petroleum Directorate.
The next battle will be to actually protect it, within a government and state administration that has long given the Oil & Energy Ministry enormous power to grant oil licenses even in sensitive Arctic zones and, not least, authorize state investment in oil and gas installations to the tune of NOK 20 billion (USD 2.2 billion) without approval from Parliament.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday how oil ministry officials have been able to approve 22 oil and gas projects totalling investment of NOK 146.7 billion on the Norwegian Continental Shelf without consulting Parliament. The state also directly invested NOK 18.8 billion itself in seven of the projects, with no political debate. That’s remarkable, given all the debate around other major public investment projects over the years like the state Opera House, a new National Museum and, currently, proposed expansion of the E18 highway west of Oslo. The latter remains held up because of the ongoing debate, while the Opera House investment is small compared to the offshore oil projects that escaped debate and, notes Aftenposten, much less openness or specific project-related demands like electrification or other environmental- and climate-oriented features.
It all shows just how powerful the oil industry and not least state oil company Equinor are in Norway, and how Norway has been much more aggressive in “developing” the Arctic than, for example, Canada or even Russia. “Norway is the major global door-opener for activity in the Arctic,” Andaur said. It’s also been at the forefront of technology that can reduce emissions and make oil production less environmentally risky, she notes, but Andaur stresses how that only indicates that if Norway can’t or won’t protect the Arctic, few if any others will either.
Norway’s own climate credibility is thus on the line once again in the current “ice edge” debate, given the image Norway likes to portray internationally as an environmentally conscious but oil-pumping nation. “We’re often not practicing what we’re preaching,” Andaur said, an opinion recently shared by a UN envoy examining Norway’s climate policy. Norway hasn’t met its own climate goals yet, either, but raised them again just last week and thus challenged other countries to do so as well.
That has made WWF and many others cautiously optimistic that all the new attention on the climate, all the heightened awareness of the risks of oil and gas, and rising public demands for accountability may result in an expanded Marginal Ice Zone. The recent collapse of the conservative government coalition’s majority in Parliament along with ministerial changes have also changed political factions and forces considerably. Norway’s clearly most conservative and pro-oil party, Progress, is now part of the opposition in Parliament after withdrawing from the government in January. It differs sharply with other opposition parties on a wide range of issues, though, not least oil and climate, and now appears to be the only party firmly in favour of a smaller protected zone, to allow more oil exploration and production to maintain Norway’s wealth and welfare. Aftenposten has reported that Progress advocates a “dynamic ice edge” that can be moved in accordance to where the ice actually is. As Arctic ice melts, that implies ever-expanding areas of the Arctic that could be opened for more oil activity.
Two of the government coalition’s remaining parties, the Christian Democrats and Liberals, have earlier defended protected zones in the Arctic and the Liberals control the Climate and Environment Ministry. While Prime Minister Solberg and her Conservative Party have supported oil, they’re being forced to become more climate-friendly and Solberg’s new oil minister, Tina Bru, has earlier supported more protection in the Arctic. Bru has so far refrained from commenting on the ice edge debate, claiming she must wait until it’s debated among the Conservatives themselves and a position is taken.
The Labour Party, which leads the opposition in Parliament, has opened up for moving the ice edge south and thus expanding the zone into more currently open waters. Newspaper Klassekampen reported last week that Marit Arnstad, a former oil minister for the Center Party that has traditionally backed oil and raised the limits on state investment in oil projects, finds it “improbable” that the ice edge will be moved northwards and make the MIZ smaller. Most of the other parties in Parliament favour a larger MIZ, especially the Greens and Socialist Left (SV), which has long tried unsuccessfully to exert more control over Equinor.
“The backbone of this country is still oil and gas,” Andaur noted, “and that’s what has to be changed.”