Why the prospect of drilling off Norway’s Lofoten is raising tensions

By Elisabeth Bergquist, High North News - December 13, 2016

It may appear to be a no-brainer: The world needs oil. The Arctic Coast of Norway may hold significant reserves of oil. So why does Norway argue over an impact assessment?

Does impact assessment lead to drilling?

The current debate in Norway, locally as well as nationally, is about whether or not to open up for an impact assessment of potential petroleum exploitation off the coast of Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja (LoVeSe), in fields known to oil insiders as Nordland VI and VII, and Troms II. These numbers refer to specific blocks that have been drawn up and mapped by the Norwegian Department of Oil and Energy.

Lofoten, Vesterålen, Senja and the potential oil fields. (Barents Watch / High North News)
Lofoten, Vesterålen, Senja and the potential oil fields. (Barents Watch / High North News)

Nordland VI was opened up and allocated in 1994, then closed again in 2001. While the question of conducting an impact study or not may appear relatively harmless, its underlying significance is not to be overlooked.

Supporters of conducting an impact study argue that before we make a decision, we need to know as much as possible about what we’re deciding on, thus implying that a decision may go either way. Opponents argue that there is more than enough knowledge about this already.

They point to the fact that all past impact assessments have resulted in subsequent drilling, i.e. that the impact assessment would, in reality, be a first step on the way to exploitation of petroleum resources in a most vulnerable area.

Many-tiered conflict lines

Conservatives against the Greens. Local versus regional versus national. Internal divides in parties and unions, environmental organizations versus local businesses. These are just a few of the conflict lines that are drawn when Norwegians try to decide whether or not to try and make use of the oil fields that they expect to find off its northern coasts.

One of the main points of contestation is whether or not a potential oil industry can co-exist with the fish industry, as the areas where the oil may be happen to be located lies just in the areas where Norway’s single most important fisheries take place every winter, and have done for centuries. The vulnerability of the area, situated north of the Arctic Circle and in sub-Arctic conditions, is also a key element of the discussion.

Internal divides and high tensions

The oil fields in question lie off the coast of the Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelagos, which belong to Nordland County, and the island of Senja, which belongs to Troms County. The County Parliaments reflect the big divide in this debate.

The Nordland County Parliament, where the Labour Party is part of the leading coalition county government, has recently voted in favor of the impact assessment. The Troms County Parliament, on the other hand, in October voted against such an assessment. Only the representatives from the Conservatives and the Progress Party voted in favour, while the Labour representatives voted against, their party being part of the majority coalition that holds the County Government.

Thus, the Labour party representatives in the two county parliaments effectively voted ‘against’ each other across the county borders.

Furthermore, the Finnmark County Parliament – a county that already has some oil industry – has voted to oppose an impact assessment and potential exploitation of Nordland VI and VII, and Troms II. The Labour Party holds the county government in Finnmark, in a majority coalition with the Socialist Left Party and the Christian Democratic Party.

It may also be interesting to note that all the municipality parliaments in Lofoten have voted against an impact assessment.

Government tied – opposition split

The two parties currently in government in Norway, the Conservatives and the Progress Party, are both in favor of conducting an impact study. However, they only came to and remain in power with the support of the Liberal Party and the Christian Democratic Party, both of which oppose such a study. Thus, the current government’s inaugural statement is a four-party document stating that “There will be no opening up for petroleum activities, or impact assessments pursuant to the Act relating to petroleum activities, in the sea areas off the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands and Senja during the period from 2013 to 2017.”

The leading opposition party, the Labour Party, is split right down the middle on the issue. The Labour Youth Party is vocally opposed to an impact assessment, whereas those in the party with ties to labour unions and the industry are generally more in favor.

The current Labour Party program statement on the issue is a compromise, following a polarized debate. The party statement supports an impact assessment, however, it also claims that such an assessment shall not automatically lead to an opening of the oil fields in question. In effect, the party’s 2013 decision is to postpone a definite decision.

Why support exploitation of LoVeSe?

The arguments for exploiting the petroleum resources off the LoVeSe coastline, are plenty. To mention but a few: The oil industry is expected to provide jobs and growth locally, regionally and nationally. Local businesses will be able to expand and increase their turnover if and when they become suppliers or subcontractors. Industrial clusters will ensue and thus lead to growth in other areas too.

Norwegian gas is a more environmentally friendly source of energy than coal and oil, due to the technology involved. Oil is still in high demand on the world market. There is nothing that can substitute oil on a short and mid-term basis. Norway needs the income, especially as other and more mature fields have peaked and will be in decline. Oil and fish can co-exist, and there is only a very limited risk of oil spills, they argue.

Why leave LoVeSe petroleum resources alone?

The opponents of exploiting the petroleum resources in LoVeSe argue that the oil industry cannot co-exist with fisheries in this area. Each winter, arctic cod migrates from the Barents Sea to the coast off Lofoten and Vesterålen to spawn, leading to a large fish industry that constitutes a significant part of local and national economy and employment.

Fish, unlike oil, is a renewable resource if managed sustainably, and introducing petroleum activities in this area would pose a threat and possibly diminish this industry.

Furthermore, opponents argue, seismic shooting is used in all phases of petroleum exploitation and will dramatically reduce the amounts of fish caught in the area. A furthering of the petroleum industry is not sustainable in an environmental perspective, they claim, as Norway needs to reduce rather than increase its emissions of climate gases.

Opponents also argue that the oil spill protection equipment existing today is insufficient, as it works rather poorly under extreme conditions like cold, high waves and in the dark – conditions that are often the norm in the Arctic.

2017 – What happens next?

On 11 September 2017 there will be a new parliamentary election in Norway. The current government recently came very close to suffering a budget debate loss, and the issue of whether or not to drill in LoVeSe is a hot potato, as we have shown, not only for the government but also for the opposition.

Adding to that, there is an ongoing and nearly equally heated debate all over Norway at present, regarding a transformation of the geographical areas of organization; regionalization and a potential merging of municipalities – voluntarily or not.

What the outcome of the next year’s debate will be, and how it will affect both local and national politics, remains to be seen.