Just as the Center Party is reaching new heights in voter popularity, one of its former oil ministers has landed in more trouble with Parliament. Ola Borten Moe, who now works in the oil business himself, is suspected of withholding information that some Arctic oil fields could turn out to be unprofitable and expensive for taxpayers.
The Parliament’s disciplinary committee (Kontroll- og konstitusjons-komité) has voted to move forward with a probe into whether its members had all relevant information when they voted to open up large portions of the Barents Sea to oil and gas exploration in 2013.
“We need to dig into what the former Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe has known and done,” Freddy André Øvstegård of the Socialist Left party (SV) told news bureau NTB after the committee voted on the issue Tuesday. “A control case with a public hearing will contribute to that.”
The committee had already expressed a need to know “who knew what” before the large Barents’ southeastern area was opened. Committee members are also keen to know whether any laws were broken, and presented a long list of questions to current Oil Minister Tina Bru earlier this month. SV suspects ministry employees and oil industry professionals were instructed not to reveal the full extent of what they knew, or that actual oil and gas reserves were much less than predicted.
A question of exerting influence
Moe was oil and energy minister from the Center Party in the former left-center government at the time, which was a coalition led by the Labour Party and also included SV. State broadcaster NRK has earlier reported that the government ministry over which Moe had political control may have exerted influence over the state oil directorate and the professionals on whom they relied not to “talk down” the fields’ potential.
Members of Parliament had access to one report from the oil directorate but there was also another one, which concluded that oil exploration in the Barents could result in large losses for the Norwegian state. MPs never saw that one. The disciplinary committee has thus asked to see the other report and all correspondence around it. Since oil drilling and production in the sensitive Arctic is highly controversial, and even under Supreme Court review at present, the committee is concerned that MPs were not given all the facts before allowing it.
“If the southeastern Barents was opened up on the wrong basis, it’s serious,” Øvstegård told NTB. “Both the government’s constitutional obligation to provide information and all the new fields put out to bid in the area are at stake.”
‘Natural … to raise questions’
Bru only took over as minister earlier this year, and may not be able to answer the committee’s questions. Moe had her job at the time in question, so it’s more likely he’ll be called into a hearing. He was among former oil ministers also called in for questioning recently on state oil company Equinor’s huge losses in the US. The company managed to lose more than NOK 200 billion without the ministry, its biggest owner, being aware of it or raising questions.
“It’s natural that the committee now raises questions about what’s come forth (on the expensive Barents projects),” MP Svein Harberg of the Conservative Party told NRK.
Ola Borten Moe is known for being a brash, sometimes arrogant politician who’s been accused of withholding information before. He also been criticized within the Center Party for favouring oil over climate concerns, but now insists the Parliament received “all relevant information” about the southeastern Barents back in 2013. He downplayed estimates of potential amounts of oil or gas available in the Barents, claiming that the most important thing was to drill and actually find out.
“The core of this is that until you open up an area for exploration, you don’t know what’s there,” Moe told NRK when it first revealed the missing reports and information. “That makes it almost impossible to set any values (on a field) in advance.”
Unrepentant Moe on the defense
He defended the ministry’s supply of information, claiming that the note about not “talking down” potential values is being given too much weight. “This is like a mock debate in which those who are always opposed to oil claim there’s been a terrible mistake,” Moe told NRK. “They’re also against oil (drilling) when it’s profitable.”
The conflict points up some the political differences between SV and Center, which used to be government colleagues. They’ve repeatedly disagreed on oil and climate issues, with the Center Party as a whole often accused of not being either environmentally or climate-conscious. Center Party leader Tryvge Slagsvold Vedum, suddenly a candidate for prime minister because of Center’s recent rise in public opinion polls, has already said he’d prefer to govern only with Labour and without SV in any new left-center coalition.
Vedum has already had to discipline Moe himself, however, after a serious case of sexual harassment against his predecessor Liv Signe Navarsete. Moe, considered one of the “bad boys” of the party, never admitted to doing anything wrong in that case, either.